Apartheid-era South Africa is the true leading character in this tale of a husband and wife torn apart.
By artfully interspersing tales of the senseless violence and death of those tumultuous times — seemingly unconnected to its central domestic drama — “The Suit” offers relentless reminders of the powerful and dangerous forces haunting this adaptation of Can Themba’s story, directed by the acclaimed Peter Brook, and making its U.S. debut.
The play depicts a man named Philemon, who, cuckolded by his wife Matilda, casts aside his hard-earned respectability and devises a cruelly clever punishment involving the empty suit of Matilda’s lover. The suit — omnipresent, at Philemon’s demand — stands as a potent symbol of the outside world’s invasion of their small home.
In keeping with Brook’s reputation for minimalism, the production trades visual excess — lush set design, elaborate costumes, even simple props like plates and silverware — for an undiluted version of that rare item, the well-told story.
The show comes in at under an hour and a half long, achieving the density and economy usually reserved for the best short stories.
The members of the small ensemble function as storytellers of the most versatile kind. Each is part character actor, part campfire troubadour, part “Our Town”-style audience-engaging narrator. Their skillful performances, flitting between darkly comic detachment and tragic intensity, give the show a myth’s moral heft.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa, a longtime Brooklyn resident, ably conveys Matilda’s unique mix of desperation and quiet faith — especially through song — while William Nadylam plays Philemon with intelligence and a sly, menacing wit. Jared McNeill’s unadorned rendition of “Strange Fruit” fills two of the play’s most arresting minutes.
A similarly understated and effective instrumental underpinning lends the proceedings another layer of emotional texture. Arthur Astier (guitar), Raphael Chambouvet (piano, accordion), and David Dupuis (trumpet) form a spare, nimble trio whose interjections into the play’s action are a kind of blues-inflected echo of the madcap cartoon soundtracks of the ’40s and ’50s. A song near the play’s end – helped along by several unsuspecting audience members, ushered onstage — serves as one of its most purely joyful moments.
Indeed, the play’s greatest strength is in these moments of joy — Brook and his performers subtly insist upon the presence of hope, even in the darkest times. This does nothing to erase the bleak reality chasing Philemon and Matilda, but it does make “The Suit” a bracing, human parable — and a can’t-miss event.
Peter Brook’s “The Suit” at Brooklyn Academy of Music [30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix Street in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. Opens Jan. 17, 7:30 pm, through Feb. 2.