Friday, May 5, 2017

"Battlefield"


Battlefield
Adapted by Peter Brook
Based on The Mahabharata and the Play by Jean-Claude Carrière

Jared McNeill, Sean O'Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba & Carole Karemera
An old man -- obviously blind and in a cloak and outfit indistinguishable as to historical era or geography -- steps forward to tell us in a tired, low-keyed voice with little movement of body or face, “The war is over ... My oldest son, dead ... Millions, dead ... How do I go on?  ... Where is justice?”  As he disappears into the background of a mostly empty stage, a younger man (also of no particular time or place) describes a horrific scene of piled, rotting bodies by the thousands on a field before him. “These tiger-like men, now extinguished,” he bemoans, while also describing of eagles, vultures, jackals, and dogs now scavenging the former heroes.  Also with little emotion, he barely whispers, “Is victory a defeat? ... What have we done?”

And so opens the restrained, solemn, often mesmerizing tale entitled Battlefield, as we hear of the aftermath of a major, devastating war and the victor’s reluctance and struggle to take the reigns as ruler after so much human desecration.  Based on an ancient Hindu epic with roots four thousand years old (The Mahabharata), Battlefield is Peter Brook’s adaptation of a 1985, nine-hour play version (and a 1989, five-hour film) of the original Sanskrit classic that Mr. Brook collaborated to write with Jean-Claude Carrière.  Now on world tour, this seventy-minute Battlefield lands on the American Conservatory Theatre stage; and the result is a story being told as if to a few people huddled around a campfire or in a confined, forest lodge.  For a vast audience of up to one thousand on three levels, the understated action and the mostly soft, monotone vocals make the telling sometimes difficult to understand and follow yet still fascinating to behold.

Jared McNeill
Young Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill) is the stunned victor who stands in fearful awe of the war’s victims and who now prepares to burn the body of a cousin who was his enemy.  Much like any civil war, the one that has just passed has evidently pitted rival parts of the same family against each other, with even brothers (sometimes unknowingly) fighting, killing, and defeating each other.  There is an ‘every war, every man’ quality to the story that is accentuated by the nondescript costumes of Oria Puppo that rely on long scarves of red, gold, and brown to both serve as body coverings and props for the telling of the story. 

Yuddhishthira finds his mourning mother, Kunti (Carole Karemera) who has just recounted to no one in particular with diverted, wide eyes and almost expressionless countenance the loss of her son Karna, arch enemy and also unknown brother of her son, Yudhishthira.  She encourages her surviving son to take up his duty as king and is joined by the old, blind man we have already met, Dhritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan) who is struggling to let go of his anger and grief over losing one hundred sons to the army of this now victorious nephew.  He lends now his love and support as a father to the young victor and too encourages him to be a just and ruling king.

The mother and uncle send the doubting young man to his grandfather, Bhishma (Ery Nzaramba), who lies dying on the battlefield, waiting for the solstice sun’s rays to give him permission for his last breath.  There, Yuddhishthira receives the wisdom of the elder through a recounting of a number of parables that teach him lessons about destiny, justice, life, and death – all to prepare him to rule in peace after so many years of war.

It is during the telling of the grandfather’s stories that Peter Brooks’ direction of his adaptation gathers an energy and spark that contrast greatly to the slower paced, meditative storytelling of the play’s bulk.  Actors quickly jump in to become a snake, pigeon, worm, falcon, and other members of the animal kingdom to act out the stories that Bhishma tells.   A lowly worm tells of his love of life even as he faces possible death from an approaching chariot (“Even if I am a worm, I have my pleasures”) while a woman decides not to kill a snake for her eating her son after learning that destiny decides these matters, not the snake.  Other tales call on the likes of elephants and mice to make their points, with Bhishma warning, “This world is ever threatened by death ... What you planned to do this afternoon, must be done at dawn.” 

Toshi Tsuchitori on Drums
If one listens hard enough and forgives words dropped and phrases lost due to un-miked actors who speak in mixed, African dialects often more to each other than in the direction or for the hearing by the audience, then much can be gained and appreciated by this storytelling.  There is a feeling, to me, of Native American stories, particularly of the Southwest, in which animals, rivers, and rocks take on life to provide important, eternally true lessons.  This indigenous quality of the telling is highly accentuated by the hand-drumming of Toshi Tsuchitori that accompanies the entire story, with his often providing the emotional punctuation missing from the steady monotones of the lines spoken by the actors. 

Carole Karemera, Sean O'Callaghan, Jared McNeill & Ery Nzaramba
In fact, perhaps the most powerful moments of the entire seventy minutes comes in the final two-to-three when his drum takes over the storytelling and leaves both actors and audience in a silent, thought-rich trance, with all reflecting on the true meaning of the last hour-plus.  In the end, Battlefield speaks to Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Syria, and to too many other war zones too well known by us all.  If only it spoke in this telling just a bit more forcibly and audibly for all to hear its entirety.

Rating: 3 E

Battlefield continues through May 21, 2017 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Caroline Moreau



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