Thirty years ago, director Peter Brook’s revelatory nine-hour production of the “Mahabharata” was an artistic triumph. Drawn from the Hindu epic poem about war, peace and so much more, it set a new standard for the theater world even as it spawned a TV miniseries and a film. For those of us lucky enough to see it, it was on the order of a religious experience.
It also raised expectations that should be tempered now as Brook, 92 and still sharp, returns to the same source material for “Battlefield,” excerpted from the “Mahabharata” by Brook with longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne.
A 70-minute one-act playing at the Guthrie Theater through Sunday, it is a work about such weighty considerations as justice, truth and death, topics that remain current in a time of chemical attacks and nuclear saber-rattling. In fact, it was the Syrian civil war that inspired Brook to revisit the text.
Compared with the lavishness of his earlier production, “Battlefield” is a spare chamber piece with just four actors. War is the backdrop to the action.
Prince Yudishtira (Jared McNeill) has killed his chief enemy in battle, a rival who is closer than he knows. Overwhelmed with victory, and the moral responsibility that comes with winning, he seeks counsel about his destiny.
He is told a series of animal fables, including one about a worm that crosses a road, a snake that kills a child and a falcon that wants to eat a pigeon. These storytelling actors, who have minimal props, are backed by percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori, who plays the djembe drum.
“Battlefield” feels like a series of campfire stories, without the campfire. It’s a small piece on a big stage, so the impact gets dissipated, but the international ensemble — McNeill is American while Carole Karemera and Ery Nzaramba are Rwandan and Sean O’Callaghan is from southern Ireland — is charismatic and compelling, even as the actors struggled at times with sound problems.
In fact, the show elicited awe and a little confusion at the end of Friday’s opening performance. After the storytellers had told their fables, percussionist Tsuchitori delivered a spirited volley of drumming that gradually tapered off until his hands moved silently over the drumhead, as if he were miming. When he stopped, there was a long pause and then the house lights slowly rose.
It felt like the kind of reverential moment that people have after witnessing something amazing, but mixed with puzzlement, too. What were we supposed to do now?
That is a question for the warrior, standing in victory over corpses on the battlefield, and the audience, giving a standing ovation for a staging that was by turns mystical and mystifying.