Wounds of war: minimalist version

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday May 9, 2017
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Carole Karemera and Jared McNeill play mother and son<br>dealing with the aftermath of war in Peter Brook's <i>Battlefield </i><br>at ACT's Geary Theater. Photo: Donald<br>Cooper
Carole Karemera and Jared McNeill play mother and son
dealing with the aftermath of war in Peter Brook's Battlefield
at ACT's Geary Theater. Photo: Donald

"War is not healthy for children and other living things." If you're of the right demographic, perhaps you had the iconic poster on your dorm room wall gently stating the obvious with a sense of newfound wisdom. Flashback several thousand years, and you can see that it has been wisdom learned and forgotten with unerring regularity. But words spoken way back then don't have poster-ready uplift: "There is no choice between war and peace. The choice is between war and another war."

Those words are heard early in Battlefield, now at ACT's Geary Theater, an epilogue of sorts to director Peter Brook's epic stage version of The Mahabharata, and a reassertion that the war to end all wars has yet to ever be. The surviving characters in Battlefield may feel they have been through that war, but the gods know better " even we mortals sitting in the theater know better " and this elegiac drama offers little comfort beyond words of wisdom whispered among the characters at the end, but not for our ears.

The Mahabharata itself is an epic narrative poem in Sanskrit that details a horrific war in ancient India, with the stories of the opposing princes and philosophical musings on the goals of life. Brooks and his adaptor Jean-Claude Carriere's original production ran more than eight hours, had a cast of 24, and played in venues ranging from an abandoned quarry to moldering movie palaces. Battlefield, in contrast, is a study in minimalism, with four performers on a largely bare stage for only 70 minutes. But there is a power in the simplicity, from methodically vivid descriptions of post-battle carnage to the mordant whimsy of its parables.

There are times when the current production, adapted and directed by Brooks and Marie-Helene Estienne, suggests, contradictorily, a tightly controlled looseness " even a meandering, but this is belied by the intense discipline of the cast. The four actors and single percussionist at the Geary are the original quintet who have been with the project since its debut in London last year, and there is precision in their every word and gesture.

The performers play more than one role, but most have a single character that is their main focus. For Jared McNeill, it is the devastated victor of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands, and ravaged his own family, as McNeill makes palpable his utter sorrow in what should be triumph. Carole Karemera is a striking figure as his forlorn mother who shares a shameful secret only after brother has killed brother. Sean O'Callaghan has the most varied roles, from a blind, vanquished, but forgiving leader to a swaggering storyteller. Often in the role of soothsayers, Ery Nzaramba has the voice and demeanor that complement the roles' sage characteristics.

Toshi Tsuchitori, who was part of the musical ensemble in Brook's original The Mahabharata, is on stage drumming throughout with an ebb and flow of percussion that becomes at one with the story being told. At the very end, Tsuchitori takes center stage with the rest of the cast and hammers furiously with his hands before bringing the percussion down to steadily diminishing intensity that turns, at some ineffable point, into an inaudible thrumming. All is silence, and it is to the audience to commit to the fact that the play is over.


Battlefield will run at ACT's Geary Theater through May 21. Tickets are $20-$105. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.