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Theater review: Directing god Peter Brook brings his Battlefield to Brooklyn

Written by
Helen Shaw

The moment in Peter Brook's Battlefield with the most urgency and focus is, inevitably, the end. In the aftermath of a global catastrophe, a sage promises to tell a wanderer the secret of life. There's no spectacle, no set. The quartet of actors leans close to hear; master-drummer Toshi Tsuchitori bends into a frenzied final sequence. When he finishes, the silence stretches out over the audience. We sit a long time without applauding. A Brook production, a holy object, deserves that reverence.

It's hard to overstate Brook's influence: he pioneered a host of aesthetic approaches, but more importantly, the seriousness of his work changed the field forever. Our notion of the theater as a sacred flame was built and tended by him. So if in Battlefield that flame seems banked, the heat a bit indirect, there are other compensations.

For instance, no show will ever again look so at home in the BAM Harvey Theater. Brook is 91, and it's possible (though he seems infinitely young) another of his productions will not come our way. In 1987, BAM revived the tumbledown Majestic for Brook's nine-hour The Mahabarata, so those familiar Pompeii-red walls, the sense of suspended ruin—it was all carefully preserved at Brook's behest. Battlefield is a distillation of that earlier work: Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne adapted and co-directed the play by Jean-Claude Carrière, creating a new piece by slicing the plot down to its denouement and turning its expansiveness into elegant minimalism. The Mahabarata was 29 years ago, but it could have just left the building. Battlefield takes place on a cloth the same red as the plaster wall behind it, and sometimes the production seems to be emerging from the theater itself, or our memory of what it once held.

Barefoot actors glide among stacks of bamboo rods. They enact a few scenes from the Sanskrit epic, primarily ones about the brokenhearted Pandavan King Yudishtira (Jared McNeill), who has prevailed over his cousins after a devastating war. Winning has come at a cost, and he looks for absolution from his uncle (Sean O'Callaghan), his mother (Carole Karemera) and his mortally wounded grandfather (the fantastic Ery Nzaramba). Brook and Estienne clearly find profound, present meaning in this tale of Pyrrhic victory and in the story's many layering parables (a worm fearing death, for instance, or a mongoose with a passion for gold). But the didactic, story-time quality of the production dims the ancient source's radiance.

The actors are lovely and grave; in time-honored Brookian tradition, they make their world out of fabric and the aforementioned bamboo poles. But the absence here isn't because of some rigorous paring away: It's an absence, period. Battlefield is only the “pathos” part of the tragedy, the record of the suffering caused, and the long unwinding series of fatalistic lessons. And these are, if you actually listen to them, invariably terrifying. Destiny is to blame! The earth desired the war! These are hard, even repellent messages to hear in the modern age, but the show treats it all as undiluted wisdom.

The atmosphere—so clean, so Zen—implies that we're participating in a group-meditation on peace. But in fact, Battlefield is about accepting mass slaughter. A kin-slayer is comforted by his victims; people walk into a forest fire to embrace self-immolation; Krishna nods approvingly at it all. This text, even expurgated, is morally complex. To embrace it is to embrace the thornbush. And yet that drum beats on, gently. Brook and Estienne preside over something graceful, even lulling, all elements smiling meaningfully, the gurus delivering wisdom. Yet Battlefield seems to want to impart lessons without really listening to their implications. I love Brook, and it's an honor to see something made by his hand. But against such willful simplicity, even a worshipper at his altar must take up arms.

BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). Written and translated by Jean-Claude Carrière. Adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. With ensemble cast. Running time:1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through Oct 9. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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