You’d be hard-pressed to launch an expedition to theater from around the globe more auspiciously than with “The Suit,” a movingly evocative South African fable about folly and unforgiveness that is given the freshest of interpretations by Peter Brook’s Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord.
Mounted in the Kennedy Center’s cozy Terrace Theater, the production is a deeply affecting demonstration of how with only a modest tool kit — some metal clothing racks, wooden chairs, a jacket, pants and tie, and the music of guitar, keyboard and trumpet — a story of towering feeling can be assembled. “The Suit” is one of those pieces that remind you of how little in the way of fancy illusion an audience requires to fall under the spell of a story woven with humility and elan.
“The Suit,” which runs through Thursday, is also the opening act of the center’s World Stages international theater festival, which for the remainder of March (and with one show in early April) turns the institution into a veritable United Nations of plays. A total of 15 productions, representing artists from 19 countries, will shuttle in and out of the center for brief runs, 13 of the shows fully staged and two others staged readings. Panel discussions and art installations round out the program, perhaps the most ambitious showcasing of world drama the center has undertaken.
Including the work of Brook, 88, whose creative wanderlust has propelled him into explorations of dramatic texts from all over the world — from French operas to Indian epics — was smart both symbolically and practically. “The Suit,” based on a short story by the late South African writer Can Themba, has been in the repertory of Brook’s theater for many years, and the piece achieves a time-tested grip on an audience. Although the narrative unfolds gently, the serene tone is a bit misleading. For any time “The Suit” seeks to deliver an emotional punch, the hit is direct.
The story, performed in English and adapted by Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk — the direction is also attributed to all three — is conveyed with the stark inexorability of Greek tragedy. Denizens of a black township, law firm employee Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) and his homemaker wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), look blissfully matched. And then, a friend (Jordan Barbour, an all-purpose third actor in the piece) pulls Philomen aside to let him in on the truth: Matilda has a lover, who shows up each day after he leaves for work.
Jeremiah’s placid-seeming Philomen conceives a revenge equal to his own devastating humiliation. Matilda must treat the suit her lover has left behind as if it were a permanent houseguest — a punishment of sadistic proportions, a guarantee that whatever wound has been opened will only get bigger. The suit, propped on a chair at the dinner table, its arms hanging loosely, resembles a corpse. And when we gaze at it, what we see is a kind of death — the mortal remains of a troubled union.
In Kheswa’s remarkable performance as Matilda, the play assumes its tragic dimension. Matilda is despite her endless penance an exuberant figure, expressed most vibrantly in the songs she performs, lilting indigenous folk songs. (A three-man band, consisting of Arthur Astier, Mark Christine and Mark Kavuma, prowls the stage, accompanying Kheswa and supplying an underscoring of Western classical and African music.) At the completion of one of her most exhilarating songs, during a party for neighbors, our hearts sink along with Matilda’s: Philomen, seemingly unable to control himself, ends the festivities with a gesture suggesting that his cruel insistence on keeping the sin alive will never abate.
Jeremiah manages to imbue Philomen with an aptly hot-and-cold-running temperament that keeps us hoping for the best. And Barbour proves to be both an appealing utility player and a capable intermediary during a few endearing minutes of audience interaction. Most powerfully, though, the evening’s poignancy is emblazoned on the face of Kheswa, in her gaze of woeful resignation, reflecting a spirit as worn as a well-traveled suit.
By Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. Direction, adaptation and music by Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk. Lighting, Philippe Vialatte; costumes, Oria Puppo. About 70 minutes. Tickets, $49. Through Thursday at the John
F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org
or call 202-467-4600.