Clothes may make the man, but "The Suit" undoes a woman in Peter Brook's mesmerizing one-act.
This exquisite little gem, a touring production from Paris' Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, distills the tragedy of apartheid into a tender tale of love dashed on the rocks of fate. The haunting 80-minute fable runs through May 18 at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
Brook lives up to his legendary reputation for casting a spell on the audience with unexpected blends of movement, mime and music. Famed for his epic "Mahabharata" and his acrobatic "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the British director transformed our notions of how to make theater with his seminal book "The Empty Space." Now the virtuoso director stretches the boundaries of storytelling to find the political subtext in an intimate story of infidelity.
Based on a short story by the late South African writer Can Themba, "The Suit" is a well-tailored allegory steeped in the rhythms of Sophiatown, a thriving black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the '50s.
Brook and collaborators Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk capture the euphoria of that time and place, a small pocket of freedom in a sea of cruelty and oppression. As the narrator puts it, the city had become "the home of truth, our place."
Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah) is a gentle soul, proud of his job as a secretary, proud of his humble home and his beautiful wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). Outside his four walls, the world is harsh. Violence and scorn are in the air they breathe. White people rule the world outside this meager parlor, but in his home, he is king. Or so he thinks.
Brook builds delicate tableaux out of ordinary objects. A couple of chairs and a sheet becomes a bed. An empty coat rack becomes a city bus. These mundane objects transport us to the speak-easies and shanties of Sophiatown.
The richly nuanced fabric of this world is spun from apt performances, such as Jordan Barbour's magnetic turns as the narrator and in several other small parts, all vivid in their idiosyncrasy.
The music emerges as a character unto itself. Kheswa has an angelic voice singing Nina Simone's "Feeling Good." Barbour lends a harrowing gravity to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."
But it's Jeremiah's seething transformation from lover to monster that gives the show its arc. One morning he finds his beloved in the arms of another. Burning with rage, he devises a punishment that fits the crime. The left-behind suit of her lover becomes a talisman of her shame she can never be free from.
The alchemy of music and movement here is sublime. Brook uses these elements to imbue what might otherwise be a grim tale with a hint of the restorative power of culture. These characters take refuge in their music, engaging in the act of performance so deeply they can escape reality simply by singing the notes.
While the closing moments of the piece lack the aching clarity of the rest of the narrative, "The Suit" moves us with the simplicity and purity of its stagecraft.
Direction, adaptation and music by Peter Brook, Marie-Hél ne Estienne and Franck Krawczyk
Through: May 18
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $25-$140; 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org