Stage

Weales, Gerald

STAGE EPIC COMMUNION BROOK'S 'MAHABHARATA' Epics are in love with catalogues, armor, and funerals. The Mahabharata, like The Iliad, chronicles the gathering of forces, providing the lineage...

...Such a process is certainly necessary to put these figures on stage as Peter Brook has done in his nine-hour condensation of The Mahabharata...
...These heroes, male and female, are direct whether they speak simply or in operatic overstatement, and most of them are defined by a single trait...
...Unlike The Iliad, The Mahabharata, after centuries of interpolation, is a compendium of social, philosophical, and theological ideas...
...spread over three weeks...
...I cannot explain why all these elements add up to an effective and affecting theater piece, but for me and for much of the audience they did...
...The other characters join him on stage for a ritual sharing of food...
...There are striking images but they pass quickly...
...The music is a participant in rather than, an accompaniment to the action...
...Jean-Claude Carriere, the playwright who worked with Brook on The Conference of the Birds and The Tragedy of Carmen, prepared a dramatic version of the Epic which Brook and his company, performers from all over the world, have turned into a remarkable theater piece...
...The stage has water to splash in, sand to roll in and on which fires can be built, a wall to climb...
...Here, words end, like thought...
...Props are emblematic a wheel for a chariot, revolving ladders for a troop formation, sticks for bows and arrows and their manipulation becomes a more convincing suggestion of war thati the familiar clang of sword on sword in Shakespeare productions...
...I found the performers comprehensible for the most part and eloquent when the occasion demanded...
...Anyone who wants to concentrate on the legends has to cut through both the interpolations and the rhetoric of the epic and go for character and story...
...The Mahabharata, like The Iliad, chronicles the gathering of forces, providing the lineage and neat labels (a single adjective brave, dauntless, godlike or a celebratory phrase) for each of the heroes...
...The ending is a problem if one takes it as a culmination of the action that has gone before, but then the ascent to heaven in the Epic is generally believed to be a later addition to the poem...
...If any clarification of action is necessary, it is given on stage by the character, by observer-participants such as Krishna, or by the storyteller...
...The former are the good guys, the latter the bad guys, or so we are led to assume by the presence of Krishna, who may or may not be the incarnation of Vishnu, on the side of the Pandavas...
...at one point a large man, striding heavily, playing a long, curved instrument, momentarily becomes an elephant in a procession...
...At the beginning, I found this simplicity disconcerting, but as the piece grew I was drawn in by the story, and the legend did its work without the crutch of psychological complexity...
...Ramesh C. Dutta, the nineteenth-century poetical civil servant who did an abridged version of the poem in the nicely jogging English meter of Locksley Hall, wrote that' 'the crystal rill of the Epic itself was all but lost in an unending morass of religious and didactic episodes, legends, tales, and traditions...
...Despite these familiar Brookian devices, the director does not provide stage pictures so much as arrangements in space, and the movement except for the occasional frenzied dance of a demon is deliberate, the visual equivalent of the direct speech...
...This may be philosophically sound within the context of The Mahabharata, but it is unsatisfying dramatically to have sat through nine hours of heroism and anguish and be told that it is an illusion...
...or on three evenings in a row...
...Up to their hipbones in pointless slaughter, as one expects in an epic, these men tower above mere mortals by virtue of their courage and their skill and also their friendship with or direct descent from the gods...
...Rugs are unrolled as playing areas, and costumes even the occasional gesture toward ostentation never touch the poem's caressing fondness for the materials of display...
...The staging is as spare as the skeletonized epic...
...In that statement there is an explanation of why, after all, the ending felt right...
...The Mahabharata is being presented in several different ways at the Majestic Theater a marvelous restored playing space, an adjunct to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Tor its Next Wave Festival: the three parts in a marathon one-day presentation...
...That "crystal rill" is the story of the long war between the Pandavas (Yudishsthira and his four brothers) and their cousins the Kauravas (Duryodhana and his brothers, onehundred strong...
...Rise in tranquillity...
...This philosophical conundrum, which ties in with the underlying theme of life as illusion, is almost the only ambiguity in the play...
...I saw it in the third option and, for me, the build within the piece was the stronger for the breathing space between parts...
...lingers over rites and rituals with special attention to those that assure 655 burial with honor...
...describes armor with the kind of loving detail unseen today outside of auction rooms...
...The piece ends when the war ends, and the scenes that follow are a kind of tidying up, at least until Yudishsthira reaches heaven's gate and denounces the gods...
...GERALD WEALES 656...
...Yet, the warriors on both sides relatives and friends of their enemies are heroes...
...This was the last illusion...
...There have been complaints that the English of some of the actors is too difficult to follow and that the production has retained too much of the original, piling incident on incident so thickly that the audience cannot sort out what is happening...
...their exchanges question whether events create the poem or the poem creates the events...
...We had just been through nine hours of illusion theatrical illusion and those were not the characters on stage...
...We are not presuming to present the symbolism of Hindu philosophy," says Brook in his foreword to the published play...
...They were the performers, and they reached out to the audience who reached back applause, cheers, flowers thrown on stage to testify that a theatrical communion had taken place...
...The keeper dismisses the denunciation and invites him in: "Here, there is no happiness, no punishment, no family, no enemies...
...Although there is a heavy load of plot in the third part ("The War"), presumably because Brook and Carriere want to stay with all of the sixteen main characters, the sense of fragmentation is much less pervasive than the cumulative power of the piece...
...The Brook version uses Vyasa, "deathless bard of deathless lay," as Dutta calls him, to tell "the story of your race . . .the poetical history of mankind'' to an unnamed boy, a descendant of the Pandavas...
...A character may be capable of chicanery on stage, but he never tries to mask himself from the audience, as he might in a modern drama...
...They and their acts triggered by greed, ambition, revenge, loyalty, honor, nobility, or forces outside themselves are the stuff legends are made of...
...Traditionally the author of The Mahabharata as well as a participant in it, Vyasa here has an oddly playful relationship with his characters...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 20


 
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