Der Tod und das Mädchen
The Kennedy Center's annual spring arts festival shifts this year from a geographical orientation, like last year's Nordic Cool theme, to one of genre. World Stages, an International Theater Festival, will feature performances from a score of countries and nearly every continent: 13 fully staged productions, 9 of which are U.S premieres, plus art installations, readings, and other events. The festivities kicked off with the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord adaptation of The Suit, a play by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon (based on the novel by Can Themba), distilled down to an intense sixty minutes by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, with music composed and arranged by Franck Krawczyk, seen on Tuesday night in the Terrace Theater.
A few years ago, at age 85, director Peter Brook stepped down from the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the company that had rejuvenated an old theater in a quartier chaud of Paris. This led to a budget cut for the company, as the French government reduced its subsidy, but it has also meant that we and other audiences around the world are seeing more of Brook's touring productions like this one. The performance of Brook's Fragments, in 2011, was the first time Brook had brought a production to the Kennedy Center since 1973. We are still waiting to see Brook's version of The Magic Flute, but the same collaborators worked together on this new adaptation of The Suit, with similarly enchanting results.
The signature of this brand of theater is the amalgamation of drama, recitation, song, and instrumental music, a quasi-operatic mode of performance that heightens the play's emotional tensions. Three musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Christine, and Mark Kavuma) perform on trumpet, electronic keyboard, accordion, and guitar and also play minor roles, making the music literally part of the action. When the accordion enters, playing the melancholy melody of the song Ständchen (Serenade), from Schubert's Schwanengesang, it sets the stage for a lovers' tryst. We see the morning routine of Philemon and Matilda, and they seem a blissfully happy husband and wife. After he leaves for work, though, Philemon learns that his wife is receiving regular visits from another man. When he surprises them in bed, the man runs off, leaving his suit and tie on a hanger. Philemon subsumes his rage into himself but at the cost of his own mental balance, charging Matilda to treat the suit like an honored guest in their home -- a duty she must fulfill faithfully, seating 'him' at the dinner table and even spooning food to 'him' -- or he will kill her. As the accordion plays the melancholy Schubert song Death and the Maiden, the pairing evoked by Matilda's embrace of the ominous sign of her shame, we know the story will not end well.
Thomas May, Ménage à froid: Peter Brook’s The Suit (Memeteria, March 20)
Peter Mark, World Stages festival: ‘The Suit’ is superbly tailored (Washington Post, March 12)
Toby Zinman, In Peter Brook's 'Suit,' a couple in apartheid's shadow (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1)
Ben Brantley, Revenge Comes in a Tight Embrace in a South African Tale of Infidelity (New York Times, January 21, 2013)
This performance will be repeated tonight and tomorrow evening (March 12 and 13, 7:30 pm).