Grand Delusions

War and Peace at the Loeb Mainstage tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.

HISTORIANS DELUDE THEMSELVES. Chroniclers of crowded battlefields claim to be citing causes, all the while knowing that they can be certain only of enumerating events. In War and Peace, Napoleon claims that what happens is "destiny when I can guide it, chance when it slips through my fingers," and the historian believes him. But, Tolstoy implies in his epic novel, chance--and the random effect it has on the lives of millions of people--is history's major determining factor. The victory at Borodino towards the end of the novel belongs to the aging Russian general Kutuzov not because he stopped the French but because, looking at the carnage, he realizes that no one can either understand or control events.

In the current Loeb production of War and Peace, the trembling of Russian society in the face of the Napoleonic Wars is staged in the historian's limbo of order and chaos, at the interface of the sloping stage of destiny and the flat, eye-level platform of action. But whereas Tolstoy flashed light on the everyday existence of ordinary men and women, what drama there is in the adaptation, first performed in 1955 in Berlin, must be released in a series of stunning special effects simulating the horrors of war from above. The peculiar predicament of characters adhering fiercely to free choice in a determined world--of Andrei, Prince Bolkonski who gets sucked into the wars, of Natasha Rostova, his young fiancee who does not manage to remain faithful, of the Bolkonski serfs who incite an abortive revolt--all positioned so carefully in the novel, collapse beneath the weight of the simplistic anti-war statement of the play.

It is to director Norman Ayrton's credit that throughout most of the two and a half hours of War and Peace, the historian's illusion of control is sustained. By coloring the play's war scenes with two large slide screens that at times trace Napoleon's progress across the map of Europe and at times stain the background with a dull blood red, Ayrton gives the soldiers' disordered flights a suggestive significance beyond the mere chronicling of events. And by frequently isolating the characters at opposite ends of the stages, Ayrton lends to the few joint tableaux an emotional compression that continues to ring long after the smoke of the battles has disappeared.

If Ayrton is the invisible force of destiny responsible for the tight, logical progression of the production, then it is the Narrator who continues the director's work after the curtain goes up. Like a commanding general surveying a battle from his horse atop a hill, the Narrator is both involved with and separated from the action. Consistently drawing the lessons to be learned from the playing out of the scenes, the Narrator is the omniscient, controlling eye Tolstoy wished to, but knew he could not, be.

Jonathan Epstein's commanding, resonant narration almost succeeds in keeping the explosive elements of the play under control. At the start of each act, Epstein literally bounds on stage, organizing and directing the action with the sheer energy and power of his voice. Epstein's careful pacing helps drive home the moral of the play but his tone does not moderate sufficiently when he steps inside the action and plays an old man in a train station.

BECAUSE the moral is the message in War and Peace, the other actors must struggle especially hard to bring their characters to life. Most successful are Lorenzo Mariani as Andrei and Heitzi Epstein as his sister Maria. With the gradual opening of his clenched fists and the slow crumbling of his waxen face, Mariani marks each stage in the deterioration of a man who loses everything--from the reforms he sponsored to the women he loved--and now stands "before the abyss." Mariani's concentrated physical control is so complete that, in the last scene his entire body writhes in its inexorable struggle with death.

Epstein moves beautifully through the role of the self-sacrificing woman who chooses an ascetic existence with her task-master father rather than the promises of marriage. With penetrating glances, Epstein conveys the other-worldliness that enables Maria to be the one character who does not feel constrained by her limited role in life or in the sparsely written play.

By contrast, Linda Kirwan's Natasha longs to break from her bounds. While Kirwan's impetuosity seems appropriate for the romantic 17-year old girl she is at the beginning, her emotions are too wild for the older, sincerely repentant woman who later begs Andrei for forgiveness.

Peter Wirth's Old Prince Bolkonski is static at the other extreme, delivering each line with the dry rigor of orders given in battle. "Orders cannot be changed; order is order forever, un-changeable," Wirth pronounces with a monotony that characterizes all his tones and actions. It is as if the dead delusions of historians have triumphed in a way greater than even this part demands.

Most of the other actors skillfully manipulate their minor roles with characteristic panache. Sarah McClusky's bubbling Countess Rostova is particularly entertaining as is Tom Myers'' self-important Napoleon Bonaparte. Chris Clemenson squeezes the wisdom of General Kutuzov from a wonderfully wizened frame. And John Blazo as the soldier Kuragin easily seduces Natasha with a slickness worthy of the serpent in the garden.

But despite these largely successful attempts to retrieve order in the midst of chaos, in its third act, War and Peace falls apart. The problem may be that the script pits the determinists against the free choicers of history but ultimately fails to resolve the debate. Or the problem may stem from the weak character and portrayal of Andrei's friend Pierre Busukov, who, taking on a role like that of the Narrator's, stages the final fight.

Stephen Toope handles the young, bumbling Pierre, an aristocrat who cannot seem to find his niche in life, with just the right touch of humor. But when the script calls for stature to compensate for its lack of explanation, Toope flounders and the events cease to make sense. In the novel, Pierre, a self-proclaimed "military observer," realizes there is only confusion on the battlefield and in this admission of his impotence, there is strength. In the play, however, Pierre simulates the battle, moving model soldiers across a lighted destiny stage as the generals yell and cannonballs whistle and burst in the background. It is an awkward scene anyway, with the aristocrat straining to shift the wooden pieces, but Toope's Pierre resembles little more than a boy playing with his toy soldiers. The question "Why? Why? And for whom?" remains.

But the real reason for the disintegration that sets in after Borodino is that history is being made too fast. Jumping from the battlefield to Andrei's death to Natasha's marriage with Pierre, the play loses its sense of drama and becomes a mere chronicle of events. Once more the audience is left wondering with Pierre "What does this all mean?" By the end of War and Peace, despite the valiant struggle of the director and cast, only the historian knows for sure.