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KC Theater Festival Opens with Peter Brook

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.

Other Reviews:

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)
Music plays a central role, representing fantasy and self-fulfillment in Matilda's mind, and she is the one whose singing is most present in the performance. Nonhlanhla Kheswa was sweet and tragically melancholy in the role, with a pleasant voice to listen to in the songs (by Miriam Makeba and others). As Philemon, Ivanno Jeremiah was both seemingly innocent and wounded but at the same time haunted by a dark menace. As narrator of the story and a family friend, Jordan Barbour was light-hearted and sincere, but he also gave a gripping, minimalistic rendition of the protest song Strange Fruit, which brought the struggles of the characters, who are living through the imposition of apartheid laws in South Africa, into glaring reality. The solemnity of the tragic conclusion is marked by an extended but quiet solo on the electronic keyboard, an arrangement of Mache dich, mein Herze, rein, a bass aria from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Although the set is simple -- a few brightly colored chairs and clothing racks on a rug -- the music combined with some vibrant lighting (designed by Philippe Vialatte), occasionally deep vermilion, to create an ambiance that drew one into the theatrical world it opened.

This performance will be repeated tonight and tomorrow evening (March 12 and 13, 7:30 pm).

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