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Revenge Comes in a Tight Embrace in a South African Tale of Infidelity

Sometimes a weighty tale is never more affecting than when it’s told lightly. “The Suit,” the wonderful touring production from the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, brims with a gentle effervescence and musicality that you associate with entertainments usually described, a bit dismissively, as charming.
Yet even as it draws you in like the gregarious host of an intimate party, this story of adultery in apartheid South Africa is quietly preparing to break your heart. By the time you leave the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where “The Suit” runs through Feb. 2, you may feel you’ve experienced devastation by enchantment. The sadness will linger, but so will an elating sense of this show’s enfolding magic.

Such complicated sorcery is all the more potent for its seeming simplicity, a paradox long associated with the great director Peter Brook, who created “The Suit” with his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and the composer Frank Krawczyk. An ever-more-pared-down plainness has marked the path of Mr. Brook’s career, which stretches over more than six decades, embracing pinnacles like his acrobatic “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and his marathon “Mahabharata.”

Sometimes the results are austere to the point of starvation, as in his bare-bones 50-minute version of Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” several years ago. “The Suit” — which is based on a story by the South African writer Can Themba, and its stage adaptation by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon — is unlikely to leave anyone feeling hungry. It arranges similarly basic theatrical elements — a cast of four performers and three musicians, some chairs and some clothing racks — into a world that brims with juicy, appetizing life.

It’s our awareness of the possibilities for sweetness within that life that lends “The Suit” much of its sting. Its fablelike story unfolds in Sophiatown, a poor but vital suburb of Johannesburg that flourished in the 1940s and ’50s as a center of black culture (especially music) and has since acquired mythic status in South African memory. “The home of truth, our place,” is how the show’s narrator (Jared McNeill) describes it. Within that world live a couple who, when we first see them, wrapped in each other’s arms in bed one rainy morning, would appear to be the very image of marital contentment: Philomen (William Nadylam) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). Both husband and wife deliver separate encomiums, Matilda in soaring song, to the beauty within their existence, despite its privation.

Their Eden collapses that same day. Philomen, having been tipped off by a friend, rushes home from work to find his wife in the arms of a lover (Rikki Henry, in one of many roles), who escapes through the bedroom window in his underwear. His suit is left behind, to become the instrument of Philomen’s whimsical and cruel revenge upon his wife.

I won’t describe the forms that this revenge takes, except to say that the suit becomes an active participant in an unhappy ménage à trois. As Mr. Nadylam executes Philomen’s retribution, with a mix of sorrow and tight-lidded rage, you understand exactly why the narrator has told us earlier that this story could take place only in a land of repression. Like the apartheid-spawned violence and humiliation that the play’s characters trade frightened stories about, the suit casts an inescapable and blighting shadow on Philomen and Matilda’s private world.

This makes “The Suit” sound grim. It isn’t. This is partly a matter of the witty inventiveness of the production, lighted by Philippe Vialatte and designed by Oria Puppo, which creates an entire township from its small cast. (The fine, chameleon musicians — Arthur Astier, Raphael Chambouvet and David Dupuis — help fill out the roster of citizens.)

More important, time and again we feel the exultation that caged birds find in song. It is the great wish of Matilda (whom Ms. Kheswa presents as a ravishing blend of self-possession and perplexity) to become a singer. And when she performs at a women’s club, with the three male actors doing a jaunty backup, you may find tears in your eyes, because the sense of relief is so ecstatic. And because you know it can only be fleeting.

Conversely, when Mr. McNeill performs “Strange Fruit,” the song about lynching in the American South made famous by Billie Holiday, the purity of his voice and directness of his manner transform a ballad of destruction into an enduring victory for art. It’s a promise that though the music may end for Matilda and for Sophiatown — which would be razed soon after “The Suit” takes place — it never truly stops.

Everyone onstage is pretty close to perfect. Well, perhaps not the three additional cast members who are conscripted from the audience to join the show’s climactic party chez Philomen. I can say this because I was one on the night I saw “The Suit.” Normally such participation makes me cringe.

But it’s a testament to the seductive hold of this production that even onstage, amid performers I’d been watching from a comfortable distance, I could forget my embarrassment and focus on them. Up close the illusion remained so utterly intact that when I returned to my seat, I was grateful that I had managed, just barely, to keep myself from shedding tears in a spotlight.

The Suit

Based on “The Suit” by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon; directed, adapted and music by Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk; lighting by Philippe Vialatte; sets and costumes by Oria Puppo; assistant director, Rikki Henry; stage managers, R. Michael Blanco and Thomas Becelewski. A Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production, presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president. At the Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100, Through Feb. 2. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

WITH: Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Jared McNeill, William Nadylam and Rikki Henry.