How rich simplicity can be.
Consider the magical moment in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s “The Suit” when a striking young South African woman in a bright-orange party dress sings for her guests. She sings “Malaika,” a popular Swahili tune about a young man’s love for his “angel,” his “little bird,” whom he is too poor to marry.
The tune is infectiously upbeat, the singer incandescent. But in a moment, her husband will step forward to crush her with just a few quiet words.
Spare but not austere, dynamic but never histrionic, “The Suit” is the work of a stage maestro, whose artistry is akin to a distiller refining raw grapes into smoothly potent spirits.
He is the revered 89-year-old director Peter Brook, whose touring production of “The Suit” is being presented here by the Rep and Seattle Theatre Group.
“The Suit” is, simply, a small treasure. And it’s a master class in clarity: It conveys the essence of ardor, racial oppression, vengeance and forgiveness in one satisfying, 75-minute act.
The late South African writer Can Themba’s same-titled short story was first dramatized by the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in the 1990s. Brook and his close collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne soon crafted their own version in French for Brook’s Bouffes du Nord Theatre in Paris. Recently they’ve reworked the piece in an English-language version that’s touring the U.S.
“The Suit” is a personal/political allegory, and Brook and company thrive on the power of suggestion. The set consists of colorful chairs and rolling metal clothes racks. The actors, via pantomime, evoke everything else — a jolting commuter train, plates of food, glasses of liquor.
An ebullient narrator (Jordan Barbour) introduces us to, and comments on, the seemingly contented couple, Matilda (the captivating Nonhlanhla Kheswa) and Philomen (compelling Ivanno Jeremiah), who live in the vibrant interracial district of Sophiatown, near Johannesburg. (The tale unfolds before the white South African government forcibly removed and relocated Sophiatown’s protesting residents in 1955.)
We taste some of the couple’s small, pungent pleasures — the blithe music (performed by the sweet-voiced Kheswa, Barbour and musicians Arthur Astier, Mark Christine and Mark Kavuma). The bantering affection. The devoted spouse serving his adored wife breakfast in bed.
But there are also keen glimpses of Matilda’s restless loneliness, and the soul-draining insults and indignities Philomen suffers daily, under the racial segregation of Apartheid.
The trigger for the poised, genial Philomen’s accumulated, unexpressed anger to erupt is sexual and domestic, not overtly political. He discovers Matilda in bed with another man, who leaves behind a suit of clothes as he dashes away.
Philomen refuses to beat Matilda, but in a cold fury exacts another kind of cruel punishment to become her steely oppressor. He lords it over her, subjecting her to great anxiety and debasing humiliation by making her lug around, feed and, in the shattering party scene, display her lover’s suit as a badge of shame. When he finally decides to “forgive and forget” her adultery, it is too late. Her heart and spirit are broken.
Every aspect of “The Suit” is seamlessly composed — the sensitive acting, the earthy humor, musical director Franck Krawczyk’s sourcings from Schubert, Bach, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and African tunes. It all comes together so gracefully, and with such startling impact.