Not every play begins with a pep talk. Then again, no stage work of any sort quite resembles The Mahabharata, a 9½-hour Indian epic that just began a three-month run at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music. At 1 p.m., before the first performance, director Peter Brook preps the audience for a marathon sit that will end at midnight with only two short breaks. “It is in fact a long day’s journey into night,” he says, “with less liquor.”
What the stalwart get for their $96 tickets isn’t just leg cramps: Many hail The Mahabharata as the most stunning theatrical spectacle of the year. On an earth-covered stage, with an 80-foot river and occasional walls of flame, 24 actors and six musicians from around the world enact one of the most sacred Hindu tales, involving a war between two sets of cousins. Each scene caresses the senses with wafting incense, sitar and flute music and flowers. During a sold-out run at this summer’s L.A. Festival, critic Michael Lassell in the Herald Examiner marveled at “power and beauty so profound that it hits with the emotional impact of death.”
The Mahabharata is derived from the world’s longest poem, written between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., and it has never before been condensed into a play. The enterprise was launched in 1973 when a French Sanskrit scholar, Philippe Lavastine, transmitted the poem orally to Brook and French playwright Jean-Claude Carrière. “There and then we shook hands vowing to do it,” recalls Brook, 62, director of the ground-breaking play Marat-Sade. After 11 years of research the pair finally gathered a troupe in Paris for 10 months of work with a rough script. Rehearsals included lessons in archery and martial arts plus a tour of India with an improv session at a ruined temple. In 1985 the first public performances were given at a quarry in France. The Brooklyn Academy has partially renovated the abandoned 84-year-old Majestic Theater to house The Mahabharata, leaving peeling paint and plaster to heighten the mood of antiquity. Playgoers watching the $2.2 million production risk being sprinkled with plaster or paint flecks.
“I was intermittently amused, bored, fascinated and exhausted,” said critic Richard Slayton of the L.A. production. Most viewers are likely to share the feeling of Vittorio Mezzogiorno, 46, who plays a warring prince. “After almost 10 hours we are nearly dead,” he admits, “but it’s worth the effort.”