Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St. between Ashland & Rockwell Pl.
Through February 2, $25-$90
A married couple’s woes serve as a microcosm for life in apartheid South Africa in Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne, and Franck Krawczyk’s minimalist English-language adaptation of Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse, and Barney Simon’s French version of Themba’s award-winning short story, The Suit. Set in the 1950s in Sophiatown, a culturally vibrant suburb of Johannesburg that was crushed by apartheid, The Suit is a story within a story with Jared McNeill serving as narrator, speaking directly to and interacting with the audience, even bringing three people onstage at one point. McNeill relates the tale of Philomen (William Nadylam), a working man who comes home early one day to catch his wife, Matilda (Brooklyn-based South Africa native Nonhlanhla Kheswa), in the arms of another man (Rikki Henry, who plays multiple small roles as well as serving as assistant director). The lover takes off in a hurry, leaving behind his well-tailored suit on a hanger. As punishment for her cheating, Philomen forces Tilly to treat the suit as a member of the family, pretending to feed it and giving it an honored place in their bedroom every night. But when he decides that they should throw a party that includes the suit as a guest, tragedy awaits.
The Suit takes place on a relatively bare stage that features only a dozen brightly colored backless chairs and metal clothing racks that become doors, windows, closets, bathrooms, and bus stops. The empty spaces in the racks and chairs evoke the emptiness of the characters’ lives during apartheid; Brook, Estienne, and Krawczyk fill these empty spaces with music, performed live by guitarist Arthur Astier, pianist Raphaël Chambouvet, and accordionist David Dupuis, who also make humorous surprise appearances at the party. Tilly also sings several heartfelt songs herself, with Kheswa revealing a lovely voice. The Suit doesn’t make any grand statements about racism, politics, or even infidelity, instead concentrating on the claustrophobic lives the people of Sophiatown must endure. The cast is uniformly excellent; the night we saw it, the show had to be stopped for a few minutes because of a sick audience member, but McNeill, Nadylam, and Henry were able to get back into their scene afterward, improvising a handful of playful jokes referencing the delay. Brook is a familiar fixture at BAM, going back more than forty years; in 1971, he presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream there, and in 1987 he helped renovate the Majestic Theater, now known as the Harvey, for The Mahabharata. At eighty-seven, he is back at the Harvey, with a delightful yet dark seventy-five-minute production that once again proves that less can be more.