Otherworldly Light in Peter Brook’s  “Battlefield”  @ Museum of Contemporary Art

Theater Review by Hector Pascual Alvarez

Rating 3 stars out of 4

Thirty years ago, director Peter Brook attempted the impossible: to distill humankind's longest epic poem, India’s The Mahabharata, into a 9 hour theatrical event that powerfully captured audience's imaginations around the world. 

Adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere and performed by a company of 21 actors from 16 countries, The Mahabharata was performed from sunset to sunrise, sometimes in theaters, sometimes in immense outdoor quarries, and it became one of the most famous productions in 20th century theater history. Combining ritual, Asian performance traditions, and Peter Brook's unique brand of stage poetry, the show told the story of a Great War that tears apart a family and destroys much of humankind.  It ended when Yudishtira, the war's victor and battle-scarred king, enters heaven and is served a meal with his enemies as hundreds of oil lamps floated on a stream, and the sun's first rays bathed the stage with otherworldly light. 

Now Peter Brook and his long-time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne return to the ancient text, to themes of war, justice, and duty, and to the character of Yudishtira in an intimate, watertight 70 minute long piece for 5 performers. If The Mahabharata was a theatrical Moby Dick, Battlefield is a lean and sharp Bartleby; if The Mahabharata was cosmically sprawling like a Wagnerian opera, Battlefield has the depth and strange elusiveness of Beethoven's last string quartets. But make no mistake, Battlefield is vintage Brook: the empty space, the truthful and luminous acting, the use of bamboo poles and colorful scarves to conjure up props and characters, a stunning floor the color of blood-soaked sand... all these elements are there.   

Photo by Caroline Moreau

On the most superficial of terms, Battlefield works as a coming of age story about a young king who must rule after an apocalyptic war. Yudishtira (played by a boyish Jared McNeill) is emphatically not in heaven yet, but rather in a hell of rotting carcasses and wailing widows, and he must come to terms with the role he played in the war and with his responsibilities as king. His mother Kunti (Carole Karemera), the deposed blind king Dhritarashtra (Sean O'Callaghan) and his grandfather Bhima (Ery Nzaramba) become counselors of sorts. They enact parables and fables peopled by talking animals, and figures such as Death and Time, for the moral benefit of the king. This is storytelling theater at its best, punctuated by Toshi Tsuchitori's expressive drumming, and as the evening progresses Battlefield becomes less of a play, and more of a ceremonial poem for the end of times. 

While its exploration of war couldn't be more timely, and its aesthetic dimension is ravishing in its economy, ultimately there's an elusive quality to Battlefield that proves difficult. Frustrating, even. The parables are simple enough but their meaning remains slippery. The characters discuss moral truths in ways that are both profound and hackneyed. 

The show is perhaps at its most eloquent when it foregoes language and relies on the alchemy of the stage to touch its audience. In the final scene, a character whispers the secret of the universe into Yudishtira's ear. This moment recalls a central scene in Brook's Mahabharata and in the original Sanskrit epic itself, where the god Krishna whispers the core of truths that are known as the Bhagavad Gita into the warrior Arjuna's ear. I won't spoil it for you, but in Battlefield the moment is handled in such an exquisite way that the result proves breathtaking. You feel what audiences 30 years ago probably felt when the stage filled with otherworldly light at the end of the nine-hour ordeal. If only for that, Battlefield must be seen. 

Battlefield runs at the Museum of Contemporary Artthrough April 9.  Tickets are available online at www.mcachicago.org. Additional information can be found at www.theaterinchicago.com.

Héctor Álvarez is a writer, actor and director from Spain based in Chicago. He has studied non-Western theater traditions in China, Japan and Indonesia, and in 2008 received aWatson Fellowship to research community-based performance in Latin America. He has a BA in Theater from Macalester College and an MA in Modern English Literature form University College London. As an actor, he has trained and studied with Georges Bigot, Augusto Boal, Peter Schumann, Malte Lambrecht and Guillermo Heras and has performed in more than 20 productions. He is a member of Theatre Y’s ensemble since 2015.