By Bob Shuman
Theatremakers, who have decided to forgo political issues, such as immigration, refugees, radical Islam, Benghazi, and Trump’s wall, may want to consider the words of ninety-one-year-old Peter Brook, whose seventy-minute companion piece to his classic nine-hour 1987 Mahabharata (which is available on disk and YouTube) recently played at BAM’s Harvey Theatre (Battlefield ended October 9). Brook said he wanted his new work to “find something relevant for today” and, perhaps counter-intuitively, returned to the classic ancient Indian poem, not out of nostalgia, but because of its ability to see “all aspects of human existence”; it includes an apocalyptic war, which leaves ten million dead. “It could be Hiroshima or Syria,” Brook says, “When one watches the news one is angry, disgusted, furious.” So also may be the informed public, not just of today, but also those who will look back at what was being produced during our time and question why so many essential parts of the national dialogue were BleachBitted from our stages, despite a public disposal toward interest in history, demonstrated by the mega-hit Hamilton.
Battlefield is Brook in shorthand, overshadowed by the real theatre of the moment: the American election. Nevertheless, he says he is speaking to power “in a space of concentration” regarding “what happens after the battle,” for both winners and losers. He knows who he specifically wants to appeal to, as well: “Obama and his successor, Hollande and his successor, Putin, and all the presidents.” Are they actually listening? Probably not, largely because arts leaders have allowed theatre to become inconsequential, overwhelming audiences with immature and merely entertaining work, but if art can instead be entertained, Brook’s modest piece might be taken as seriously as any. He has been in the public eye for approximately 70 years and although his techniques do not seem cutting edge, or dangerous, anymore, his stagings and his books, most famously The Empty Space (1968), are essential to understanding experimental theatre. Brook’s influence is seen everywhere, from Broadway to La Mama, both places which would be impossible to understand without him. With regard to The Mahabharata, Brook has been accused of “exoticism,” by uprooting the sacred text without understanding it as would an Indian—but he might also make a case about the appropriation of his own theatrical research and methods. In his defense, in respect to the 200,000 line poem, he has said, “It is a failure of us to have spent so long to recognize that it [The Mahabharata] is for humanity.”
Straightforward, with a central black box as a focal point, Battlefield makes use of brilliantly hued fabric and bamboo sticks as props in a setting the color of blood. Its ancient story regards a blind king, who has lost his sons. He is meeting his nephew, who does not know how to accept the responsibilities of having won a war. “The winners say ‘victory is a defeat’ and the ones who lost admit that ‘they could have prevented the war’. More than asking for an imitation of behavior or psychological depth, Brook is most interested in storytelling—as was the American avant-garde he began influencing, including Ellen Stewart and Elizabeth Swados. Here, mortality seems to consume Brook most, even more than war: “What you have planned to do tomorrow must be done today. Only death is certain. Readiness is most important.” Wisdom, perhaps, from a creator who has been called “our greatest living theatre director,” having won Tonys and Emmys, the Praemium Imperiale and the Prix Italia. His four actors, in Battlefield (Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan), play for seventy minutes, telling folkloric parables, sometimes comically and from the point of view of animals, such as a snake, mongoose, worm, and monkey. The cast makes use of simple pantomiming, and is often staged in a circular pattern, accompanied by Toshi Tsuchitori (who performed in the original Mahabharata) on African drum—the co-director and co-adapter is Brook’s long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and the text is by the writer of the stage version, Jean-Claude Carrière. Brook, the impresario, went around the world to find the essence of theatre and some may say he found the ingredients of a good children’s play—what they forget is how difficult the proposition of simplicity is.
Those who saw Brook’s film of Lord of the Flies (1963)–and have read about his redefining, symbolic version of Titus Andronicus (1958)—know of the director’s facility with horror, which infused the American avant-garde, along with Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty. Lone Wolf Tribe’s The God Projekt, a domestic history of God–from lifelike primordial spit to today’s suicide of the West–is close to a gross-out show, written by Kevin Augustine and Edward Einhorn (it closed at La Mama on October 16). The team follows similar concerns as those in Battlefield, including the idea of repeated apocalypses, interest in ancient civilizations, ingesting of another person, and even animals—in this case a monkey. Kevin Augustine, the leading player (the show is virtually a monologue) displays a talent for disguise. He and Einhorn (with puppeteers Joseph Garner and Emily Marsh), are like pre-meds who have studied Darwin too long, sniffing formaldehyde, or like kids boiling a frog or eating worms; they’re politically incorrect heralds of the grotesque tradition. Unlike Brook, however, they haven’t found minimalism, even if in terms of form, all find themselves telling large mythic tales. Incorporated here are the stories of Adam, the Queen of Heaven, and even Christ—which, in a seeming counterculture template, move toward audience participation. The God Projeckt may be an ur text, or part of one anyway, which holds the motherload of themes for the partnership. Of special interest is the anatomically correct and wet and squishy war between Christianity and Paganism: La Mama, Ellen Stewart herself, may have liked the emphasis on polytheism in The God Projekt, supplemented by bygone tunes such as “Isn’t It Nice to Have a Wife Around the house?” and “My Blue Heaven.” Such work might have inspired her to produce a new puppet Frankenstein—or Augustine’s and Einhorn’s own version of Titus, complete with internal organs.
Even if the title reference to theoretical physics is inflated, Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club until December 11, uses minimalism in set (two tables and two chairs) and props (virtually none) and confirms Brook’s notion that “if you [take] away the big scenery . . . we listen more purely.” He’s right–theatregoers will hear Stephens’s engaging script and be impressed by the tight acting of Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker (even if her pronunciation makes the character seem slow at the start). The creative team, including director Mark Brokaw with scenic designer Mark Wendland, seem to be appropriating the technique of working with absence, as well as TV news alert scene starters, in order to make contemporary a vehicle, which in the 1960s, would have gone to Sandy Dennis. During that era, Stephens’s central male character did forget to write about Vietnam in his diaries, and the English playwright’s “average people” love story has chosen not to mention our own searing current events, except in a jab at Garden State Republicans, apparently in order to pander to Manhattan Theatre Club audiences. Stephens’s work was especially raw in his short A Canopy of Stars, where a young English mother rages against the Afghanistan War—calling the Mideast country “a hole in the bottom of the world.” Here he is less successful in finding his chatty Jersey girl’s idiom: how many women have you met from the state called Georgie, to begin with, and how often would you hear them say, that suits me “down to the ground”? Even if Stephens doesn’t convince that he’s figured out how the American character translates abroad, there was appreciation for this two-hander in the house, which might recall the way people reacted to Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly. Our section of the theatre was disrupted twice during the performance when a woman first exclaimed, “This is charming,” and, later, “This is fabulous.” If commercial stage work can elicit this kind of on-the-spot euphoric word of mouth, then there really is no reason for a critic. Whether one has left the theatre, “nourished by his own thoughts,” as Brook would hope, is subjective.
© 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Visit BAM: http://www.bam.org/ Press, Battlefield: BAM: Sandy Sawotka.
Visit La Mama: http://lamama.org/ Press, The God Projekt: La Mama: Miguel Mendiola/Sam Rudy.
Visit Manhattan Theatre Club: http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/join-mtc/ Press, Heisenberg: BBBway: Michelle Farabaugh and Melissa Cohen.