Teatro Espressivo brings message of peace to National Theater anniversary

November 10, 2017

On many levels, it’s a uniquely Costa Rican story.

For starters, it’s taking place under the roof of what is arguably the country’s most iconic building, its National Theater, which this month turns 120. But the theater’s anniversary celebrations also showcase this country’s generations of international residents. Its rich yet accessible artistic traditions. Its historic commitment to peace.

And coffee, coffee everywhere, the influence of the “golden bean” permeating the event: from the coffee barons who were instrumental in erecting the theater in the first place, to Steve Aronson, the former Café Britt president who founded Teatro Espressivo and was the architect of the anniversary’s centerpiece, a special presentation of Peter Brook’s “Battlefield.” The acclaimed work will take to the National Theater stage on Oct. 18 and 19, leading up to the official anniversary celebration on Oct. 20.

“It’s a reflection on the effects of war: what peace really means and what war really means for people,” Aronson told The Tico Times this week in a phone interview. “That… made me think that this is a really great play to bring for 120 years of the National Theater. [Peace] is part of Costa Rica’s contribution to the world.”

Sean O’Callaghan, Ery Nzaramba and Carole Karemera in 'Battlefield.' Pascal Victor / ArtComArt

The work is based on the Mahabharata, a massive Indian epic eight times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. It tells the story of the conflict between the five Pandava brothers and their cousins, the Kauravas. In the work, the defeated king and his victor reflect on the nature of the conflict that has left millions dead.

Brook – a legendary British theater and film director, Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, and author – has drawn inspiration from the Mahabharata for decades. In the 1980s, he famously staged a nine-hour version of the epic around the world, and made a film by the same name in 1989.

Aronson said he has been aware of Brook’s passion for the work since that time.

“I’d heard of it, this crazy idea,” he recalls. “People would rent a theater and stay the whole day and eat – it was an 11-hour experience. I was in Costa Rica then, but it was something that stuck in my mind.”

Nearly three decades later, Brook returned to the Mahabharata in a different form: “Battlefield,” a crisp 70 minutes written by Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne.

“If we have decided to come back to this work now, it is because there was the need to find something relevant for us today,” Brook wrote in 2015 when “Battlefield” premiered. “The Indians say – and it could sound a little vain – that everything is contained in the Mahabharata and if it is not in the Mahabharata, then it does not exist… Our real audience is Obama, Hollande, Putin and all the presidents. The question is, how do they see their opponents in this day and age?”

Cast members Carole Karemera, Sean O’Callaghan, Jared McNeill and Ery Nzaramba in "Battlefield." Caroline Moreau

The play, which will be presented in English with Spanish subtitles, brings together an international cast that has garnered rave reviews around the world during its international tour (The Guardian called it “breathtaking” and “a dazzling piece of theatre”).

The shows next week will include a special presentation for high-school students in the International Baccalaureate program. Expanding IB access to Costa Rican schools is another of Aronson’s passions and the second pillar of his Demain Foundation; the others are the Teatro Espressivo Association and Proparques, which supports the country’s National Parks.

“The fact that we were able to have this in the National Theater and bring 850 11th and 12th  graders from public and private schools all over the country, in one place, is really great,” he said. “This was a negotiation with Des Bouffes du Nord [the Parisian theater behind ‘Battlefield’] because it’s an extra performance.”

The circumstances of this production are full of historical echoes, winks and coincidences that are somehow typical of life in Costa Rica. The National Theater, whose construction was partially funded by the contributions of coffee industry leaders at the time, is hosting a work brought about by a person who has shaped that industry’s modern era in Costa Rica. The first work ever staged at the theater was, like this one, born in France: the new theater welcomed the French Opera Company in 1897. Aronson said that according to “theater legend,” Brook staged his nine-hour Mahabharata in the 1980s shortly after a lengthy visit to Costa Rica, so in a way, the work is coming home.

And if Aronson has his way, this show, just like that inaugural performance in 1897, will represent a cultural tradition that is just getting started: this time, a new level of passion for theater in Costa Rica.

“What we want to do over the next year or two is bring world-class theater to Costa Rica,” he said of his work with Espressivo. “By world-class theater I mean: ‘Battlefield’ is something that has been successful in New York, San Francisco, London. We want to put Costa Rica on the map of that.”

 ‘Battlefield’ will be staged at the National Theater in downtown San José in English with Spanish subtitles on Weds. Oct. 18 and Thurs. Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets run from 8,000 to 15,000; purchase tickets or learn more here.

Take a look inside the National Theater in this Tico Times video:

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