Review: ‘Battlefield’ at The Kennedy Center

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In The Empty Space Peter Brook declared that the stage has “two rules: (1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen.”

The cast of Battlefield. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

In Battlefield, his collaboration with Marie-Hélène Estienne, those two rules are shown the exception. And the effect could not be more powerful.

If not for the applause, I’d be sitting there still, absorbing the proceedings.

Three decades ago Brook first ventured into the Mahābhārata. That nine-hour production is now legendary, for both its daring and its global vision.

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

With Battlefield, he returns to India’s Sanskrit narrative about the war between the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes. Vivid in its detail and wise in its metaphors and analogies, the epic tale deals with the consequences of war: not the material suffering and loss but the mental and spiritual repair that we in the west so often ignore.

Brook and Estienne elect to tell this story, a tightly woven one-act, using only four actors and a drummer to create its wide array of characters and situations. This is storyteller’s theatre at its finest: here, the spectacle does not astound but simply clarifies, until a single moment ripples across the boards.

The minimalist choice reaps huge rewards; for, ironically, such a simple spectacle, if orchestrated correctly, can at times engross the audience completely.

Performed by a multiracial, multi-ethnic ensemble of actors consisting of Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan, the story focuses on the prince who survives the civil war, which left most of his family killed. He must now become king, but a spiritual crisis swirls around him.

The cast does a fantastic job keeping each character distinct, which is no small task, as sometimes the changes are both rapid and unannounced.

Yet, the tale never misses a beat.

Produced by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Battlefield illuminates that spiritual war with a beautiful combination of simple analogies, humorous anecdotes, and poignant insights into the existential fabric of human life. Costumes by Oria Puppo and lights by Philippe Vialatte  keep the style rough and the vision simple.

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Not afraid of addressing the larger themes directly, the tale has its audiences contemplating fate, death, and time: the very meaning of existence.

And it doesn’t forget the poor either, through a delightful bit of audience engagement, which for us regular theatre-goers left us all feeling a bit singled out.

Percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori provides the score: his playing is both intricate and emotional, sometimes leading the action, sometimes following.

In the end, it is Tsuchitori’s rhythms that dominate the performance. His score has provided the glue and, when it vanishes, we are left confronting a truly empty space.

Running Time: 70 minutes, without an intermission.

Battlefield plays through April 2, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater —2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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