NEW YORK -- By any yardstick, "The Mahabharata" is daunting.
The 2,000-year-old Sanskrit poem of that name from which it is drawn is at once an account of the early history of India's ruling classes, a sacred Hindu text, an anthology of stories and a philosophical meditation on destiny, illusion and death. Containing more than 100,000 verses, it runs 10 times longer than the Bible and is, if not exactly impenetrable to the uninitiated Westerner, at least profoundly disorienting.
If, in fact, you could fuse the Bible, Shakespeare and Homer, you might come up with something approximating "The Mahabharata." That, at any rate, is one of the thoughts that may occur to you at the newly renovated Majestic Theater in Brooklyn -- the newest arm of the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- where "The Mahabharata," as adapted by French screen writer Jean-Claude Carrie`re and staged by the legendary English director Peter Brook, opened Saturday.
Brook and Carrie`re have distilled their adaptation into three sections, which the spectator can see separately in the course of three weeks. Periodically, however,the work will be presented in its entirety on a single day. Saturday was one of the marathon performances. It began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:40 p.m.
Just before the lights dimmed, Brook himself appeared on stage to ask the audience to return punctually to its seats after the two scheduled intermissions, and then jocularly described the impending production as a "long day's journey into night ... with less liquor." Indeed, at a time when the theatrical epic is enjoying renewed popularity, "The Mahabharata" makes "Nicholas Nickleby" look like a one-act play by comparison.
It has moments of audacious theatricality, when, for example, a wall of fire suddenly blazes a serpentine path across the stage. It erupts with startling imagery, none perhaps so arresting as the death of a warrior, who signals his demise by lifting an urn over his head and drenching himself with its contents -- blood! And there is a profligacy of visual beauty -- colored silks wafting graciously in the incense-perfumed air and torches flickering like so many fireflies in the darkness.
On the one hand, the production has the majesty of a great processional; on the other, it wallows in the muck and viscera of warfare, so befouling the performers in the process as to suggest that they are engaged in the Indian equivalent of mud-wrestling. It is lofty, squalid, magical, tedious, enthralling. It houses the sublimest of thoughts and the lowest forms of buffoonery. And I would be fooling you if I said finding your way through it is not an arduous task.
All but impossible to encapsulate, the play recounts the saga of two clans -- the five sons of Pandava and their cousins, the Kauravas -- whose battle for control of the kingdom will put the very existence of Earth into jeopardy. Their rivalry elicits all the elemental human passions, from soaring nobility to base cowardice.
But it also engages the capricious gods, in particular Krishna (Bruce Myers), the earthly incarnation of Vishnu who threads his way through the action, sometimes offering wisdom to the Pandavas, sometimes performing miracles, but always maintaining a kind of cool, pedagogical ambiguity. Necromancy, monsters and "talking" lakes abound. And in what is a startlingly prescient forecast of the precarious balance of terror in today's world, representatives of both clans undertake a search for the Pasupata, the ultimate means of destruction, "a weapon you can't recall ... without limit, without mercy."
"The Mahabharata" is structured as a narrative, related by the scribe Vyasa (Robert Langdon Lloyd) to a young boy who wants to know the history of his people. The first section, "The Game of Dice," sketches the genealogy of the two clans and the strange concatenation of divine will and unguarded human impulse that brings them into conflict over the throne. Once and for all, the issue is to be resolved by a roll of the dice. But the game is rigged and the Pandavas are condemned to spend 12 years in exile, followed by a 13th year during which both their disguises and their whereabouts must be unknowable.
"Exile in the Forest," the second section, chronicles the travails of their expulsion and the temporary sanctuary they find at the court of King Virata. Although no mood ever predominates for long, it is here that low comedy puts in an appearance. One of the Pandavas is masquerading as a hermaphrodite, and their wife (all five brothers share the same spouse) momentarily finds herself caught up in an embryonic variation of the bedroom farce.
In the third section, "The War," the exile is over and the tale plunges headlong into the protracted gore and thud of battle, as the two clans lock horns (swords, arrows, bludgeons, chariot wheels and fists) in a titanic struggle that will eventually leave the earth strewn with 18 million corpses. Of course, little of this is realistically portrayed. Instead, Brook employs a boggling array of nonrepresentational techniques from the Eastern theater. Krishna, for example, plucks an arrow from the bow of an assailant, carries it in slow motion across the stage, and then implants it in the victim's body, while onstage musicians produce the sharp hiss of wind and the rumble of distant thunder.
The set for all three sections is the same -- an expanse of red clay, a canal of water running the width of the paint-flecked back wall, and downstage, a small pond. Straw mats, luxurious rugs and shimmering candlesticks turn the landscape into palace rooms. By the end, however, when the actors, caked with grime, are sloshing through the water and rolling in the red dust, the locale has taken on the awesome desolation of Lear's heath.
The Majestic Theater, once a respected tryout house on the road to Broadway, has recently been saved from ruin and remodeled to serve as, among other things, Brook's American base. "Nothing is so unimportant as comfort," Brook has observed in his theatrical writings, and the theater retains -- intentionally, one presumes -- a rough-hewn, half-finished look. After 10 hours, however, one begins to curse the padded benches with the flat backrests that wrap in a semicircle around the stage. There is a point at which the taxing becomes the unendurable.
It is, no doubt, futile (and impossible) to judge "The Mahabharata" by our prevailing standards of theater. The work is sui generis -- so foreign to Western thought and sensibilities that it generates as much bewilderment as awe. However, one can't help observing that the greatness of its thought -- in this translation, at least -- too often seems to border on the platitudinous, while the eight-page plot re'sume', thoughtfully provided by the management, is only partially helpful in untangling the epic's cosmic snarls.
Brook's troupe, formed of actors from 18 countries, is clearly possessed of passion, acrobatic agility and missionary zeal. In addition, Mallika Sarabhai, as the wife of the five Pandava brothers, has the sort of gravely noble features that evoke the beauty of a whole race. There is an intentional exaltation to the acting, underscored by the rending cry of horns and the odd twang of stringed instruments.
Certainly, this company comes as close as any in existence to constituting a theatrical United Nations. The down side, unfortunately, is a dismaying range of accents -- Asiatic, African, European -- struggling, sometimes laboriously, through the thicket of English vowels and diphthongs. If comprehension is not always easy, the linguistic diversity does foster an overall impression of exoticism.
And in the end, I suspect, that is what the general theatergoer will take from this saga in which the wife of a sightless king blindfolds herself for life; children are born, one hundred strong, from the shattered pieces of a rock; a monkey reveals itself to be a beautiful woman, while beautiful women lose their kin to the ravenous jaws of jealousy and war.
The Western stage knows few such wonders.
The Mahabharata, by Jean-Claude Carrie`re; adapted into English and directed by Peter Brook; sets and costumes, Chloe' Obolensky. With Miriam Goldschmidt, He'le`ne Patarot, Mallika Sarabhai, Ryszard Cieslak, Mamadou Dioume, Jeffery Kissoon, Sotigui Kouyate, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Andrzej Seweryn. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater, through Jan. 3.