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'The Suit' review: Funny, moving, strange South African story

The Suit: Drama. Adapted by Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk from the story and play by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. Through May 18. $20-$120. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. 75 minutes. (415) 749-2228.

The elements are as simple as a folktale, but in the hands of legendary director Peter Brook and his collaborators, "The Suit" is a polished gem of theatrical storytelling. A 2012 creation of Brook's Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, "Suit" opened Wednesday at American Conservatory Theater as the play nears the two-year point of its ongoing international tour.

To say it's not to be missed would be an understatement. This blithely comic, deeply moving, curiously cruel and enchantingly musical South African tale of infidelity in a black township is the kind of luminously influential production you'll recall with pleasure for many years to come.

Brook's trademark pared-down, concentrated simplicity blossoms in every element from visual presentation to the mesmerizing performances of the actors and musicians alike. But nothing is as simple as it sounds or appears.

Longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne adapted the script - the story of a woman whose doting husband catches her with a lover and punishes her by making her treat the man's left-behind suit as "an honored guest" - from a 1963 short story by South African writer Can Themba and its posthumous dramatization by Mothobi Mutloatse and Johannesburg interracial theater pioneer Barney Simon.

But Estienne has expanded the original by drawing on Themba's other writings to evoke and commemorate the world of Sophiatown, the impoverished, oppressed but lively, culturally rich and then bulldozed urban township where the story takes place.

She's also internationalized its subtext of the terrible toll of repression by injecting an apartheid version of the murder of Chilean songwriter Victor Jara. Composer Franck Krawczyk furthers the globalization, mixing Chilean melodies with infectious African songs made famous by Miriam Makeba - gorgeously warbled by a magnetic Nonhlanhla Kheswa (as the transgressing wife) - as well as Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and the immortal American antilynching song "Strange Fruit," in a heart-wrenching rendition by Jordan Barbour.

Barbour is Maphikela, our very congenial narrator as well as a host of male and female residents of Sophiatown - supplemented by the remarkably versatile guitarist Arthur Astier, trumpeter Mark Kavuma and pianist Mark Christine. Maphikela is also a key player in the story he tells. He's the one who, in a scene overflowing with pained empathy, tells his best friend, Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah), that his wife is unfaithful.

Jeremiah and Kheswa invest the central story with a deep commitment that makes its strangest elements seem perfectly natural. His gaze upon her sleeping form and her radiance seem to transform the mere yellow patch of carpet and open metal frames of Oria Puppo's minimalist set into a sunny, love-filled cottage. The delight and appetite for life Kheswa infuses into the songs "Ntyilo Ntyilo" and "Forbidden Games" almost make her taking a lover an extension of her love for Philemon.

Jeremiah's stunned reaction to her infidelity - the intense stew of anger, confusion, heartbreak and loss seething beneath facial features kept desperately under control - makes the punishment he devises both ingenious and a considerable relief compared with its obvious alternatives. It has its comic repercussions, particularly in Kheswa's delightful puppetry flirtation with the suit jacket. But the comedy comes laced with darker undertones.

The rich emotional interplay of "Suit" may leave you with a broad but tear-streaked smile at the end. Though short and concentrated, it's as potent as Brook's massive "Mahabharata" two decades ago or his famous "Marat/Sade" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" two decades before that.