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Los Angeles Festival : THE SCOPE OF 'MAHABHARATA'

September 13, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

"The Mahabharata" figured to be the big news of the first week of the Los Angeles Festival, and it was. But not the only news.

The festival's opening act, for example, Le Cirque du Soleil, turned out to be not just another circus.

Here were the traditional skills in the traditional tent, but seen from a different angle, a somewhat dreamlike one, as if we were watching the show through the eyes of a child. Only a French company (French-Canadian, actually) could get away with this approach without falling into cuteness. Magic time.

Another nice surprise was the Wooster Group. The advance word from New York hadn't been very clear about its festival piece. The title was certainly discouraging: "The Road to Immortality, Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . .)." Some sort of committee hearing, with quotations from "The Crucible"?

You anticipated one of those aloof, self-destructing poststructuralist pieces where "meanings" are stated and then retracted, as if to say that life is a procession of empty signals, so why get involved?

Happily, "The Road to Immortality" had a lot more energy than that. Its rapidly scanned images showed a real dismay at the change in American values since the 1950s--how glib and ruthless we've become in the age of TV. In its way, this was as much a protest play as the piece from black South Africa, "Bopha!" It simply built its case differently.

"The Mahabharata," however, is the festival's centerpiece. This show demands a major investment from the viewer, both in money ($90 a ticket) and in time (more than eight hours' performance time), and there are two groups of people who shouldn't see it.

The first are those who go the theater strictly, as they say, to be entertained. "The Mahabharata" is a very good story, and Peter Brook's actors play it very engagingly, but we aren't talking about "Cats" here.

The second group is harder to define. But it includes the friend who once told me that he couldn't relate to T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral." All that agonizing about God's will. All those scruples about not doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Was this the 20th Century or what?

This kind of person will find it even harder to identify with the spiritual dimension in "The Mahabharata." It's not half as solemn a tale as "Murder in the Cathedral," but it takes the idea of divine will very seriously, and the divine will seems to be even more inscrutable than it is in our Bible. Those with no interest in fable, especially religious fable, may find it all rather childish.

To those who find something nourishing in fables, especially religious fable, "The Mahabharata" will be a blessing. Though most Americans have never heard of it, this is one of the world's fundamental books--really a compendium of many books, including the Bhagavad-Gita. Just to have a general grasp of the story, which is all that Peter Brook's production claims to give us, puts the viewer closer to understanding that part of the world where everyone knows the story.

Though Brook's "Mahabharata" goes on for hours, with all kinds of digressions, its major lines are as clear as those of an American Western, which it sometimes resembles. Five good brothers are cheated out of their kingdom by a gang of bad brothers, retreat to the wilderness, and march out years later for a bloody showdown.

The five brothers, however, are all married to the same wife (Mallika Sarabhai--nobody's "little woman"). That certainly wouldn't happen in an American Western. The fable is ours for a moment, and then it isn't ours, and that's one of the things that Brook and his collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere, want to put across. There's a common law that governs all of humanity, and there are local customs.

Wisdom knows the difference, and the battle to achieve wisdom and self-mastery is what "The Mahabharata" is really about.

Many of the characters have no quarrel with who they are--Mamadou Dioume, for example, as the burly Bhima, who cheerfully accepts his fate as the strongest man in the world. These characters, good and bad, give the story its fun and its action. Yoshi Oida, for example, is irresistible as a rotten prince who can't wait to slip between the sheets with Bhima's wife--unaware that the person under the sheets is really Bhima. Goodness, my dear, what a strong grip you have!

This is as delicious as "Little Red Riding Hood." But it's not funny when the leader of the evil brothers (Georges Corraface) proclaims that he has never done one unseemly thing in his life--he has simply been misunderstood. There, says "The Mahabharata," is a dangerous man.

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