South African tale suits ACT
Okay, guys, you come home from work unexpectedly and find your wife in bed with another man. He jumps out the window but leaves his suit of clothes behind. What do you do?
Do you invite the unoccupied suit to stay for dinner?
That’s what happens in the funny, touching and sometimes wrenching theater piece, The Suit, now at ACT. It’s based on a short story by South African writer Can Themba, which was first adapted for the stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon for Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. When it came to the attention of stage wizard, Peter Brook, he and his long-time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne fashioned a French version for their theater, Les Bouffes du Nord, in Paris. Dissatisfied with this first attempt, they produced an English version, and it’s this that has slid gracefully into view at ACT.
The Suit is unusual in more than one way. You may not have seen anything quite like it. It’s not just that the story lifts your eyebrows. The play is a mixture of modes, from comedy to tragedy to harsh realism about life in Johannesburg’s poor, primarily black satellite community, Sophiatown. The staging is offbeat, too, in Peter Brooks’ stripped-down fashion.
None of these aspects are minuses, I hasten to say. They make for an absorbing experience.
The cuckolded husband, Philemon, has a decent job as a secretary. He washes himself meticulously and puts on a suit before he heads out each morning. He serves his beautiful wife, Matilda, breakfast, too, in bed. He’s smitten with her, so when he discovers her betrayal, he’s undone. As punishment, he forces her to treat the left-behind suit as a guest in their home, propping it up at the supper table and hanging it as a presence in their bedroom at night. As weeks pass we get glimpses of the larger Sophiatown community: its celebrations, its oppressions, its illegal shebeens, the richness of its local art, particularly of its music, performed in lively fashion onstage by Arthur Astier (guitar), Mark Christine (piano) and Mark Kavuma (trumpet). Sung by the cast, the songs range from Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricuse’s soaring “Feeling Good,” to Billie Holiday’s stark lament, “Strange Fruit,” to a pair of African songs.
After a while the husband loosens the reins on his wife. When he lets Matilda join a local women’s group, she blooms with hope, and we come to believe that Philemon may have forgiven her.
And then at a party an unexpected guest shows up..
The Suit is performed on a largely bare stage, except for a dozen brightly painted chairs and a trio of metal clothes-hangers that roll about on casters to transform into doors and windows and even a bus. The three fine actors, the lovely Nonhlanhla Kheswa as Matilda, the loose-limbed Ivanno Jeremiah as Philemon, and the warmly engaging Jordan Barbour as Paphikela, their friend, put these simple elements, designed by Oria Puppo, who also did the costumes, to inventive use. Phippe Vialatte provides subtle lighting. Frank Krawczyk helped with the adaption. Rikki Henry is the production’s assistant director.
Poignantly charming, The Suit plays on Geary Street until May 18th, followed by B.D. Wong in “The Orphan of Zhao.” ACT opens its 2014-15 season with a welcome new collaboration between comic geniuses, Bill Irwin and David Shiner, called “Old Hats.” For tickets/information call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.
Photo: Nonhlanhla Kheswa as Matilda and Ivanno Jeremiah as Philemon in The Suit. Photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt