Legendary directors Peter Brook and Marie Hélène Estienne have brought their acclaimed retelling of the Indian epic The Mahabharata to the Guthrie. The work is a product of a forty-year collaboration between the two: Brook, perhaps the most recognizable name in world theatre, and Estienne, “the most famous theatremaker no one has ever heard of.” Their ambition is to match the scale of the story: “The Mahabharata is not simply a book,” they write, “but an immense canvas covering all aspects of human existence.” Translating this to stage is no small task, and one that risks recycling boilerplate truths of Eastern spirituality (“nothing lasts forever”; “be here, now”), like so many mindfulness gurus of the Pinterest/TedTalk bourgeoisie.
I was feeling a bit cynical on the night of the opening. Hard not to these days, with the NEA, the NRA, fake Russian news, the looming promise of mass deportations, the already-underway gutting of our schools. The scorching of our lands. The world has never been sane, but it feels like this time around, we really are going to hell.
And yet amidst the chaos, present and future, something keeps us coming back to the theatre.
Beyond the steel and glass maw of the Guthrie’s main entrance, the McGuire Proscenium presents a welcome contrast. At the base of the theatre’s velvet stairs, the stage is bare but for a few linen scarves, a few bamboo rods, and a solitary drum in warm, dry light. Forget the G’s recent Gilded Age Lear, or the cluttered Royal Family; this is a story told simply, with the body, the voice, and the pitter-patter-scrape of an ancient Japanese hand drum.
We start slow. Blind King Drirashtra shuffles on stage, lamenting the carnage at the end of a civil war. He’s been unseated, but his loss of power is nothing compared to the loss of his sons of and most of his citizens. In fluid, poetic monologues, he and the victorious young King Yudishtira tell of men’s bodies piled high, and of delirious women sorting through scattered limbs in search of lost life. Despite his victory, young Yudishtira is distraught too, and when he learns from his mother, Kunti, that one of the great warriors he defeated was in fact his own brother, he abandons the throne to find answers to this suffering.
In the woods, he encounters elders, who guide us through a series of stories-within-stories. A snake kills a royal son, and judges argue over punishment: was it the snake’s fault, or merely his nature? Who is to blame: the snake, or Destiny? The parables befuddle. The wise men shrug. Death is inevitable, true justice impossible. Yudishtira needs to know: how can we stop the world from being destroyed? “It has already been destroyed, and it will happen again,” the sages tell him, “so do what must be done.” We never know what the “what” is. The snake goes free.
The actors switch roles continuously--pigeon, elder, worm, mother--and their ability to do so without losing the through-line of Yudishtira’s framing narrative is incredible-- all the more so because these shifts are hardly noticeable. Massive leaps in time feel as gentle and as natural as the quiet, spry movements of the barefooted actors.
The parables are based in life and death, though their stakes are decidedly not: They’re much lower. Or much higher. Or much--different, from what we’re used to seeing, at least in Western drama. Whereas resistance to death and suffering drives so many of our stories, acceptance of death and suffering is what drives The Mahabharata. This story is much calmer. It takes some getting used to. Rather than being sucked in to a center of gravity, our attention is taught, gently, how to glide through the stories and consider multiplicity. The actors’ tools are subtle and their heart rates remain low. Which is not to say they’re boring: tiny, simple gestures--a pigeon widening her eyes, a boy smiling at a stranger--elicit laughter and wonder. It is the anti-Commedia, a soft and sideways journey down the paradox-laden path of the search for truth.
But is this the journey we need now? Past reviews from New York, DC, and London all herald the story’s relevance to the crises of today. But I don’t know if I’m sold on this case, on this notion it’s enough, in this new age of nationalist rage, to merely ponder metaphysics while destruction looms outside. Is it enough to just behold? To merely witness, artfully? How can we afford to, when our political situation feels so desperate and so urgent?
But then again, perhaps that’s what everybody says about their own era. It wasn’t until the story’s end, which fittingly belongs to the production’s pulse, the incomparable musician Toshi Tsuchitori, that Yudishtira’s task became clear to me.
I can’t tell you what that is; it doesn’t reside in words. It resides between them, reverberating like heartbeats after a struggle, gathering insight and courage at the end of one journey and the start of another.