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Opening Nights: The Suit

The Suit
Kheswa and Jeremiah with the troublesome garment.
Pascal Victor/ArtcomArt

Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 443-2222, $15–$80. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Sat. plus matinees. Ends April 6.

Trailing great reviews behind it, Peter Brook’s international touring production of The Suit had me feeling nervous with anticipation, like a sci-fi fan before seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Would it live up to the standards of Brook’s long, eminent stage career? Happily, unlike that George Lucas flop, every element of this parable proves nothing short of a heavenly hit.

Set in 1950s South Africa during apartheid, Can Themba’s 1967 short story was first dramatized during the ’90s in South Africa and France. Using the same text by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, Brook and his collaborators (Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk) relate what’s essentially a simple story of adultery and revenge. From there, The Suit expands into themes of hurt, humiliation, and forgiveness, which certainly have resonance in the post-apartheid South Africa of today.

In his late career, Brook, 89, is now celebrated for simple and strong scenography (unlike his old spectaculars), with set designs that are simultaneously sparse and vivacious. Here, the bright colors and geometric lines remind me of Mondrian. Three performers share the stage, brilliantly and believably expressing the anguish of the script. After a prelude showing the happy Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) and Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah), the latter must ride the bus home to confront his adulterous wife. During his morose monologue—his body jerked and jolted during his commute—Jeremiah verbally and physically nails the torment of trying to travel, with alacrity, on packed public transportation.

Upon discovering his wife’s infidelity, Philemon provides a peculiar punishment, insisting that her lover’s abandoned suit be treated as a prominent houseguest. It’s an impossible situation: a vengeful husband, a guilt-ridden wife, and the token of her shame being used to oppress her. Narrating The Suit is Jordan Barbour, who also plays Philemon’s unnamed friend; in their conversations we learn about racially integrated Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg, where the play is set. That vital community will soon be segregated by the authorities—doomed, perhaps like this marriage.

A trio of musicians provides tunes that range from Schubert to period Swahili pop to American standards like “Strange Fruit” (the latter being quite excellent). Still, in such a compact 75-minute show, I actually could’ve used less music, which felt a trifle indulgent.

Is it apartheid that makes Philemon so cruel? The Suit implies as much. Themba’s original story makes this something of a period piece, and we’re now 25 years post-apartheid. Still, as we see in the ongoing legal battles over marriage equality, those who have power over a minority will cling to it as long as they can.