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The Melancholic Brilliance of Peter Brook's 'The Suit' - See more at:

An accordion player, dressed all in black, drifts on-stage at Bagley Wright Theatre, the slow, lilting tune he plays and the small, sly smile he wears telling you one thing: We are here to tell you a story. It's the musical equivalent of Once upon a time...

So begins The Suit, a small, vibrant fable at Seattle Rep (co-produced by Seattle Theatre Group), as quietly unhappy as it is colorful and full of life. The setting: Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg that thrived in the 1940s and '50s, full of music and culture in spite of (and no doubt inspired by) the the crushing weight of Apartheid.

As our story opens, Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) wakes up next to his wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). It's a beautiful morning, Philomen is very much in love, and as he rises, he explains to the audience how he relishes the chance to make Matilda's breakfast before he catches his bus to work.

Soon enough, everything crumbles when a friend (the captivating, versatile Jordan Barbour) tells Philomen that Matilda has been having an affair. He returns home right away and catches her in the act, and sends her lover fleeing so quickly he leaves his suit behind. To punish her, Philomen demands that Matilda treat the suit as she would a guest in their home; it will sit at the table during mealtimes, be fed, be respected. Always. It's as absurd as it is cruel, an awful game that Philomen cannot stop himself from playing. He is a doting husband in a society where a husband's word is law. Though he can't bring himself to violence, his punishment is just as brutal, and the toll it takes on Matilda just as real.

At its bones, this is a sad story, which makes the light, airy telling of it even more magnificent. Brightly colored chairs and rolling garment racks comprise the entire set, and not once does it feel slight. These few pieces of furniture, three actors and three chameleon-like musicians bring an entire township to life. The cast only expands when a few unsuspecting audience members are brought on stage for the big party at Matilda and Philomen's house.

Stripping theatre down to its most elemental has become a hallmark of game-changing theatre-maker Peter Brook, now 89, who created The Suit with his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and composer Frank Krawczyk. The play is based on a story by the late South African writer Can Themba and subsequent stage adaptation by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. Brooks, with his Paris-based company Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, transformed it first into French and now into this English translation.

The entire play is underscored by a simple melodies, peppered with Bach and Schubert. But these pieces are so much more than underscoring. Matilda, who wants more than anything to be a singer, gives yearning renditions of the standard "Feelin' Good" and a Swahili folk song called "Malaika," living while she can in their short-lived exuberance.

But it's Barbour's spare, haunting delivery of "Strange Fruit”—that gritty elegy of lynching in the American South—that slices through the sweetness in this story. If anything, it hinges on the sweetness born out of suffering. At a time when even churches will say "no blacks or dogs," Sophiatown vibrates with life, with passion, with music. But brave faces crack and indignities of all sizes take their toll, on Matilda and, on a panoramic level, her countrymen. The Suit is a small play with a big impact—a story distilled, flensed of all fat, which brings to bear darker realities through a lightness of being that is almost unbearable.
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