Photo: Caroline Moreau. Pictured: Jared McNeill, Carole Karemera, Ery Nzaramba.
Review: BATTLEFIELD – presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and the Museum of Contemporary Art
By Jude Hansen
A battlefield only exists after a war has taken place, it is nothing but an aftermath. Before such time as blood is shed, it is simply land. Land, or earth, that is rich with the nutrients necessary to support plant and therefore animal life. Human inhabitation transforms that land, then destroys and rebuilds. Humans are impatient.
A single drum is beaten. It is a beginning. It is a life force. A drum; animal skin stretched over a cylindrical wooden frame. A most primal instrument, delicately tuned to respond to the nuances of touch. Speed, repetition, force all combine to create meaning through this simple and primitive device. This rhythm is an undeniable universal language to all human-kind, it’s vibrations resonate with the very core of humanity. The rhythm can provoke delight, burden with anguish, incite to violence, give courage to the battle.
And so it is we find the blind King Dhritarashtra distraught at the loss of his 100 sons, and Kunti his brother’s wife, mourning the loss of her son, Karna. Kunti has the extraordinary ability to invoke any god in order to bear a child, and it is her son Yudhishthira, born of Dharma (Justice), who has come out victorious in battle. But this victory is a hollow one at best; the land has been transformed and destroyed by the ravages of this war. A victory alone is never enough. It is how Yudhishthira will then deal with this aftermath and the consequences of these actions, that show the true strength of his ability to lead.
BATTLEFIELD is a restaging of a concise excerpt from the ancient Sanskrit epic tale, THE MAHABHARATA, that illuminates the pathways to repentance and how to face the world that has been decimated with atrocities. It is a transfixing and spiritually driven journey into questions of existence, compassion and justice.
To tell this epic tale, four actors embody a multiplicity of characters and beings (a worm, a pigeon, a falcon, a river to name a few) by the donning or simple shift of lengths of vibrantly colored fabric. Littered within these performances are moments of alarming ingenuity that delight us with laughter, such as the moment the pigeon settles onto the scale to be weighed. Each performer is also able to transform instantly from character to storyteller and fluidly back again, guiding us on philosophical musings, metaphysical tangential parables and back to the narrative once more.
Brook has always been a master of concise and economical movement, this production demonstrates this extraordinary ability once again. His efficient use of space layers upon the richness of the text. No movement is unwarranted, and the precision and restraint of the performers highlight further the significance of each and every moment that they engage their bodies. It is wonderful to see such masterful acuity in relation to physical presence on stage, where stillness can be utilized to convey just as much as the tilt of the head or a grandiose sweeping gesture. For example, the way that blindness or age or even a species is conveyed and instantly recognized through the most economical and universal of means.
The set itself is decidedly sparse, but these performers fill this enormous playing space with ease, ably supported by a dynamic use of lighting. It is a simplistic lighting plot that is highly transportive, allowing us to envisage the world the language evokes. Costume is used synergistically with the other production elements to easily transport us, and Yudhishthira, through this story.
It bears saying again that Yudhishthira’s journey is one of a spiritual learning rather than an adventurer’s fable. Each encounter layering meaning through a series of allegories that illuminate the infinite possibilities of the universe. It may seem a bleak prospect when confronted with that notion that the world “has been destroyed before and will again and again and again and again and again.” In this context, however, there is also something reassuringly cathartic knowing this precise moment is a part of an infinitely large timeline. Rest assured that there always will be a Yudhishthira to rise from the aftermath with the sensitivity to acknowledge past wrongs and the strength to know how to rebuild, repent, forgive and reconstruct. Yudhishthira is within us all and cannot be silenced. This is truly a global collaboration of epic storytelling with resounding relevance.
A drum is beaten. Its rhythm is a primal call to action. It is a beginning and end. Its circular surface becomes the earth. A secret is told that we are not privy to hear and we are left in silence, challenged to be in the moment, forced to confront our own impatience.
BATTLEFIELD runs through April 8th at the Museum of Contemporary Art.