There is magic on the stage of BAM’s Harvey Theater, not the sleight-of-hand kind, but the magic attained by directors Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne and their superb cast of four in “Battlefield,” their pared version of the nine-hour “The Mahabharata,” which was staged at BAM as a major theatrical event in 1987 in the adaptation written by Jean-Claude Carrière. The Sanskrit epic narrative from ancient India dealing with the ravages of war provides similar food for thought in the shortened 1 hour 10 minute form as adapted by Brook and Estienne in this Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production.
The simplicity of the staging belies the depth of what unfolds as cast members portray key characters and also transform themselves into various reincarnations that express the poetic imagination inherent in the epic. Inescapably, the handwringing over war’s death and destruction contained in the exquisite writing registers today in light of the extensive killing in our times. It would be wonderful to report that the pain dramatized in “Battlefield” is outdated. Unfortunately, the anguish over what we are asked to feel in this production leaps across the years. It also makes for a very special theater experience.
Jared McNeill is especially effective in the role of Yudhishthira, who is informed by his mother, Kunti, beautifully portrayed by Carole Karemera, that the man whom he considered his enemy and killed was really his brother. We also see Sean O’Callaghan playing the King Dritarashtra, who is blind, moves about in his private darkness and is filled with remorse over the suffering that has resulted from war. Ery Nzaramba is also excellent as another member of the ensemble.
Helping to establish the shifting moods of the play (also abetted by Phillippe Vialatte’s lighting design) is the musical accompaniment on drum by Tosh Tsuchitori, whose hands beating on the compact instrument underline speech and action, often with haunting results. Tsuchitori was also in the fabled original production.
Various pieces of cloth, shawls, and other material are deftly used as props by the cast members to create impressions, and in one case, a rare example of humor, McNeill takes a such a bundle and asks a few audience members in the front row if they will distribute the garments to poor people. In the course of the banter he identifies the poor as perhaps those sitting high in the balcony.
“Battlefield” becomes consistently mesmerizing, enveloping the audience in a total experience with a flow of talk and movement of great smoothness. By the end, the cast stands in stillness, as if waiting to see how long it will take for the spell to lift and for the audience to recognize that the journey is over and begin to applaud. This fascinating outgrowth stemming from the original coup is yet another feather in the cap of the renowned Peter Brook, now 91 years old and still making his mark. At the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street. Phone: 718-636-4100. Reviewed October 2, 2016.