In his book The Empty Space, Peter Brook wrote, ““I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Nowhere can this thesis be illustrated more brilliantly than on the stage of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago through this Saturday. The prolific director Peter Brook and his collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, whose 9-hour staging of The Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic, earned them worldwide critical acclaim, have now created a shorter distillation of that larger piece, simply entitled Battlefield.
Battlefield Ruminates on Myth, Life, and Death
The narrative of Battlefield centers around Yudishtira, the survivor of a massive battle which claimed his brother’s life and has now placed him in the position to rule over the remaining land. With the aid of his blind uncle, Dhritarashtra, and mother, Kunti, Yudishtira parses issues of life, death, and the cost of victory. Myths of great wisdom and meditations on destiny fill the span of the play’s tight 70-minutes, packing a great deal of thought into such a short piece. Although the piece is steeped in ancient Indian philosophy, there is a universality and humor to its content. Many times throughout the evening audiences nodded in affirmation, struck by the way these aphorisms from long ago have taken on new meaning in Chicago in 2017.
Purpose and Specificity
Although there is a density to the material, Brook and Estienne’s direction of an incredibly resonant cast including four actors (Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba and Sean O'Callaghan) and a drummer (Toshi Tsuchitori) is elegant, graceful, and thoroughly engaging. Each actor speaks with clarity and purpose, enveloping you in the richness of the play’s language and stoking your imagination amidst the mostly bare stage. Actors slip in and out of character effortlessly, portraying dying kings, wise elders, optimistic worms, and a humorous mongoose before the piece is finished. The drumming of Tsuchitori serves as a constant, primeval pulse to the performance, underscoring and heightening the action on stage on an almost sacred level.
MCA Stage A Mostly Empty Space
Audiences attending Battlefield with the knowledge that the piece’s premise is taken from one of the great Indian epics may be startled to see a mostly bare stage when they enter the theatre. Black curtains hang on three sides of the shining wooden floor, which is sparsely populated with a few swaths of colorful cloth, bamboo poles of various thickness and size, and a drum. These props are not put to radical theatrical use throughout the piece, although they do help to suggest a variety of characters and settings. What truly comprises the piece’s beautiful and unflinching theatricality is its insistence that this small but pure collection of items is enough to create the world of a war-torn kingdom and its newest monarch. For a collective magic permeates the space once the actors take their place on stage, and we are transported far away, our imagination filling in the gaps which Brook and Estienne have purposely left for us. The final moments of the piece, stunning in their stillness, permeate throughout the audience in a mystical, collective beauty. We were just witness to an alchemical power the theatre is constantly reaching for, and we were lucky to have experienced it.
Top Pick for Peter Brook enthusiasts, world theatre aficionados
Not Recommended for impatient theatregoers
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Co-presented with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Battlefield runs from Wednesday, April 5, through Saturday, April 8. Performances are at 7:30pm with one 3:00pm performance on Saturday, April 8.
At the MCA Stage: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 E Chicago Ave,Chicago IL 60611
Tickets for the performances are $40 and are available at the MCA Box Office at 312.397.4010 or www.mcachicago.org