The words will rally anyone even minimally appalled by what’s going on in the world.
“Truth is the duty of every human being,” says a sage character in director Peter Brook’s stirring and severely beautiful “Battlefield.” “Truth is the highest refuge; truth is the greatest penance.”
Don’t mistake the counsel in the 75-minute piece at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, though, for a lecture. This is active, arresting drama built around parable and an epic Sanskrit poem, the “The Mahabharata,” believed to date to the 8th or 9th century B.C.
Thirty-two years ago, Brook first staged his nine-hour adaptation of “The Mahabharata,” reputedly the longest poem ever written. In this compressed treatment, derived from that play by Jean-Claude Carrière, Brook and co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne briskly recount the experiences of a reluctant Indian king, Yudhishthira, in the aftermath of a calamitous battle that has resulted in hideous carnage.
The tale unfolds with four exceptional actors — Carole Karemera, Jared McNeil, Ery Nzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan — and a superb percussionist, Toshi Tsuchitori, on a blank stage adorned only with a few sticks and poles of bamboo. The actors wear black pajamas and require merely a piece of brightly colored fabric, drawn over themselves as a shawl or twisted into a train, to suggest any number of human or animal characters.
For in “Battlefield,” the power of metaphor is all. You’ll be astonished by how richly the stories related by the various teachers, relatives and deities apply to the modern day. The play records events in the reign of McNeil’s Yudhishthira that mark the maturation of his intellect and the peaceful progress of his soul after the brutal intra-family war that leaves him bereft and disillusioned.
The stories he’s told — of a hungry falcon testing the magnanimity of a ruler, of a snake denying guilt after having bitten a child — speak to antiquity’s comprehension of the crucial qualities of enlightened leadership. The fate of the world, the play tells us, depends on it. “The Earth needs a king who can be calm and just,” Nzaramba declares at one point, in the guise of the god Krishna. And at another, “Justice is the duty of the king, and its price is very high.”
Brook and Estienne confer on the proceedings an air of austere dignity, but that air never becomes stale. That’s due in part to a quartet of actors embodying at all times the vibrant humanity of the fables. Karemera has particular success imparting the qualities of compassion and tolerance as Yudhishthira’s mother, Kunti, and O’Callaghan conveys with a becoming serenity the expansive forgiveness of a relative who has lost all of his sons in the battle.
Tsuchitori’s drumbeat adds another urgent dimension to “Battlefield” — it’s the rhythm one recognizes, of timeworn and timeless concerns.
Battlefield, based on ”The Mahabharata” and the play by Jean-Claude Carrière. Adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. Music, Toshi Tsuchitori; costumes, Oria Puppo; lighting Philippe Vialatte. About 75 minutes. Tickets, $45-$49. Through Sunday at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.