Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa in "The Suit"
Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa in "The Suit"
© Photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The Suit, SF

This spare, pared-down tale is at its best when it depicts the trials of black South Africans under apartheid.

Based on a story by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon

Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production

Directed and adapted by Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk

American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco

 

April 30-May 18, 2014

“The Suit” doesn’t fit as well as expected. With the renowned director Peter Brook’s name attached, one goes in expecting something magical like that long-ago “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or the “Marat/Sade” that set a standard for much that followed in the theater. An hour and ten minutes after going into this one, you may go out wondering “so, what was that all about?”

Can Themba’s slight little story about a man who, discovering his wife’s infidelity, forces her to carry her lover’s suit around like an honored guest, taking it for walks, feeding it at mealtime and bringing it into their bed at night, ignoring her pain and humiliation with tragic results, has a certain poignant charm. Interwoven with threads of South African history under apartheid, it even has some relevance. But it is too slender to hold the stage. Brook and his collaborators, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawcyk, have surrounded it with music — classical, jazz and South African — and, while mildly enjoyable, this seems to have been done just to stretch the thing out to an acceptable length. That works. The 70-minute running time seemed interminable.

The show, such as it is, is well-performed at A.C.T. by the Theatre des Bouffes de Nord with Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa as the husband and wife, and Jordan Barbour as both narrator and the friend who discloses the woman’s betrayal. The three excellent musicians — Arthur Astier, Mark Christine and Mark Kavuma — fill out the cast from time to time as church ladies, passers-by and party guests. Donning ladies’ hats, they can be quite funny.

But, although enlivened with touches of humor, “The Suit” is no laughing matter. The trials of black South Africans under apartheid were epic and pitiable and, for me, the most moving segment of the show was when Barbour sang the Billie Holiday standard “Strange Fruit” directly to the audience. Beyond emotional impact, this underlined a certain commonality between Southern lynchings and the turmoil in South Africa. There is little such between apartheid and the love story. “The Suit” could actually have taken place anywhere.

Unlike other Brook productions, there is not much here to beguile the eye. “Scenic elements,” consisting of a number of brightly colored chairs that are frequently moved around into different configurations, were designed by Oria Puppo, who also did the minimal costumes.

A hit at Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere around the world, in my opinion (which may not be the popular view) “The Suit” could still use some tailoring.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”