Los Angeles Theater Review: BATTLEFIELD (Peter Brook’s production at The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

by Tony Frankel on May 26, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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SNOB HIT

Well, that was boring. Of all the people on the planet who should understand the difference between theater and an underwhelming fringe entry (low cost and well-meaning with no set, minimal costume, and small cast), you would think it would be the great innovator and influencer Peter Brook. He may not be a household name, but the arts world rightfully respects and venerates this revolutionary visionary who for 60 years (he is 92) has created opera, stage, and film productions.

But the slog I witnessed on opening night at The Wallis in Beverly Hills speaks to safety and commerce in the theater, not vision. Back in the 1980s, the director adapted the great Sanskrit epic, the 3000-year-old Mahabharata, and turned it into the must-see event of this or any other generation: A nine-hour three-part marathon centering around an imperial battle for power between the related Pandava clans and their cousins, the Kauravas. Those who witnessed the dusk-to-dawn happening—and technical achievement—claim that its surreal, spine-tingling magic was only equaled by Philip Glass’s transcendent five-hour continuous opera, Einstein on the Beach.

Now, Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne (a long-time collaborator who worked as Brook’s assistant at the time) and writer Jean-Claude Carrière return to this classic work, but only a small section, coming up with Battlefield, a 70-minute, four-character play concentrating on one episode from the Mahabharata: A victorious king, consumed by guilt over the bloodshed he instigated, looks for peace and some sort of resolution with himself and his former enemy by trying to make sense of war and its aftermath. The short evening is winding up a long international tour.

By directing his international cast to be soft and controlled, with minimal movement and expression, I’m sure that Brook meant for us to lean forward for every juicy insight. But, even with some great writing and insightful Aesop-like fables, this felt like work. Toshi Tsuchitori’s astounding thumping on an African drum is brilliant at waking us from ennui, yet you may have no choice but to become as enervated as the actors seem to be (Karen Aldridge, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan).

This evening is precisely what William Goldman, in his seminal 1968 book The Season, referred to as a “Snob Hit.” It is—more or less—a sophisticated play that gets astounding reviews and sells plenty of tickets (for such a cultivated mature work, that is); it’s usually British and can even be a pretty good play; it’s partly unintelligible; it includes poets and historical figures from the ages; and “the audience that goes to the Snob Hit must be convinced that the ‘average’ theatergoer wouldn’t understand it.” Check, check, check. Snob Hit.

With terrorism now moving away from countries of origin and spreading around the world like a hideous unstoppable cancer, and North Korea brazenly creating a modern day Bay of Pigs with its weapon development, you won’t find a more timely subject. And given its daunting nature, what better place to reflect on our double-edged desire for justice and peace than the theater? But all I ruminated on is how much we pay for so little—a whole different kind of ruling-class war that’s beginning to explode in our collective face.

photos by Caroline Moreau courtesy of The Wallis

Battlefield
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
ends on May 28, 2017
for tickets, call 310.746.4000 or visit The Wallis

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