Thirty years later, Peter Brook retakes the stage created for him at the BAM Harvey Theater with “Battlefield,” a pared-down, much older writer’s take on the aftermath of the great saga and battle illuminated in the “Mahabharata.”
I first encountered Brook’s work in 1971 when I sat spellbound in the BAM opera house watching his “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” From there I endeavored to see all I could from his Bouffe Du Nord theater in Paris, to the Aix-en-Provence Festival, to LaMama. I sat transfixed through the nine hours of Brook’s original “Mahabharata” in 1987 and came back for more.
The original work, based on the epic poem, runs over 200,00 lines of poetry and featured a company of nearly 60 actors. There was music, elaborate costumes, and breaks for sustenance for the intrepid audience.
“Battlefield” is a story told on a bare stage, after all it is the final story in the saga where nearly everyone has been killed and laments a world littered with corpses. Four actors –Carole Karemera, Jared McNeil, Ery Nzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan – inhabit the many characters who tell the tale and fables within stories. Each is remarkable, mutable, reverent and wonderful to regard.
The characters are transformed via accents, affects, and a few errant pieces of cloth. These minimal costume pieces by Oria Puppo allow quick changes and echo the sparse world we witness. Everpresent on the edge is the extraordinary percussionist, Toshi Tsuchitori, who created the music for the original “Mahabharata” and continues to propel this final version forward.
This iteration focuses on Prince Yudishtira and he wrestles with how to live in a world that he has been instrumental in obliterating. This is a battle where even victory is dry dust as both kings have lost all of their families and loved one. They try constantly to unravel the notions of culpability and an afterlife where rebirth is possible. The language in this epic can be astonishingly beautiful. The various tales are evocative of Aesop’s fables, the Bible, and parables like those in the Koran, but all spun together with a distinctly Indian twist.
The play, at less than 90 minutes, is a slow-marching mediation asking the audience to question their own mortality and the choices we have made as a modern society with a constantly war torn world swirling at our well-fed feet. It is a world where” justice is blind and sorrow destroys wisdom.”
The audience at BAM is graying, like your scribe, and so it is a group often contemplating our legacy and the plight of the world we have either helped sink or shape, or perhaps turned our backs on. I spoke with Brook as I left, and I saw a spark still in those crystal-blue eyes, but this work is the effort of a man who at 91 still wants us to see the glory of the “Mahabharata,” a book Brook says is “an immense canvas covering all the aspects of human existence.”
“Battlefield” runs through Oct. 9 at BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. For tickets or information, visit http://commerce.bam.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=11668