Monday, March 24, 2014

Play: Buttoned Down

 The Suit, based on The Suit by Can Themba, Mothobi Muloatse and Barney Simon, direction, adaptation, and music by Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawcyk.  Seattle Rep, through 6 April.

I know, you expect me to rail against the idea of a tour company, any tour company, treading the boards of a theater with "repertory" in its name. But to be frank, the fact that they have launched no less than three well-produced home-grown productions across my bow this year has left me mellow to the point of acquiescence. And so we have The Suit.

It is an interesting, if short, play. For a tale that from it credit seems to require most of Europe and parts of Africa to adapt, its plotline feels slight. A young bride (Nonhlanhla Keswa) commits adultery, her lover leaping out of a window and leaving his suit behind. The husband (Ivanno Jerimiah), as punishment, insists the suit be treated as an honored guest, to be seated at dinner, to be fed, to be taken on walks. At first the punishment feels odd but mild, but proves hopeful and effective for a brief moment, but ultimately breaks both individuals. Jordan Barbour picks up the spare as almost everyone else that impacts the couple’s world, serving as friend, lover, confidant, and as narrator.

But wound around the tale is the story of South Africa’s apartheid, of the institutionalized oppression of a people. It lives at a point of time that could not easily move to another location, and as fixed as its characters, but neither compares nor contrasts with the action of the play itself. It is the weather, grey and omnipresent. Where the play shines, though, is in its music. A trio of musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Christine, and Mark Kavuma) provide both baseline and comic relief. Keswa has a rich, vibrant, amazing, wonderful voice that brings the audience alive. And Barbour at one point lays out a passionate version of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, which seeks a linkage between his far country and ours.

The stage itself is simultaneously stark and intimate, chairs and props serving multiple duties, populated by the principles and the supporting band (and at one point, members of the audience, building that connection). Throughout, the presentation strives to build the connection between audience and actors, and thereby deepen the tragedy.

The tale itself has an opening bracket but no closing, akin to Taming of the Shrew, the start of the tale, but nothing to follow, no final words. It is open-ended in its tragedy, powerful in its finality. It is a short story put into the form of a play, a one-act that is elevated by its music and and its magic. And that’s enough, for the moment.

More later,