Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

American Conservatory Theater
Review by Richard Connema | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Guards at the Taj and No, No, Nanette

Ery Nzaramba
Photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt
American Conservatory Theater is presenting a staging of an extremely cut-down version of "The Mahabharata," the nearly 2,500-year-old Sanskrit epic poem of the mighty Bharata family torn apart by a great war. "The Mahabharata" is the longest epic poem ever written and contains about over one million words, being 10 times as long as Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" combined.

Thirty years ago, Peter Brook adapted Jean-Claude Carrière's play and directed a large cast to transform the poem into nine hours of enthralling epic theatre. Brook and longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne worked on a 70-minute no-intermission version in 2015 and it premiered at the Young Vic in London. It was called Battlefield and the drama explored the part near of the end of epic poem. This is what ACT is presenting.

The beauty of this production is its striking simplicity. It starts out slow for about 10 minutes and then there are three Indian tales told by four persons on a semi-bare stage with a drummer off to the side playing a hand drum.

Battlefield opens at the aftermath of a great destructive civil war that ended in annihilation. This leaves the warrior Yudhishthira to follow his destiny as King. In true mystical fashion the King discovers his greatest achievement in killing a sworn enemy, his brother. Yudhishthira then sets off on a long journey in search of inner peace and revitalization. The storytelling goes into enthralling fables about life and death, all based on Eastern philosophy.

Brook has assembled a superb four-member cast consisting of Carole Karemera (through May 16, after which Karen Aldridge will play the role), Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O'Callaghan, the same team who played the Young Vic in London. Everyone has fantastic acting chops.

Irish actor Sean O'Callaghan is outstanding with his huge Shakespearean voice and he is a magnificent presence. He is especially good as the blind and bereaved King Dhritarashtra and is amusing as the worm in danger of being crushed. Jared McNeill is pitch perfect as the victorious Yudhishthira. Ery Nzaramba is comical and commanding as the wise man. Stately Carole Karemera is wonderful as Yudhishthira's mother Kunti and heartrending as Ganga.

The only sound effect is the live drumming of Toshi Tsuchitori, a veteran of the 1987 production. Oria Puppo's costumes are simple and streamlined, echoing the theme of the modern and the timeless.

Bottom Line: Anyone who loves simplicity in theatre and epic storytelling should go to ACT Geary for a deep but gentle and at times amusing 70 minutes.

Battlefield runs through May 21, 2017, at the ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit The company closes its season with Broadway's critically acclaimed musical A Night with Janis Joplin running June 7 through July 2.