You haven’t heard Mozart until he’s been played on marimbas. You’re in luck, too, because the opportunity presents itself this week in Washington in the Isango Ensemble’s remarkable “The Magic Flute — Impempe Yomlingo,” an exuberant fusion of 18th-century European and 21st-century African storytelling, music and rhythm.
Isango, a Cape Town theater company making its U.S. debut at Shakespeare Theatre Company, has for several years been remolding Western work to African contours. On the evidence of the pieces running in repertory at the Lansburgh Theatre, the “Flute” and an absorbing adaptation of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis,” Isango is a troupe with an exhilarating ethos that highlights vocal prowess, physical panache and passion for lyrical transpositions of the classics.
Both productions — adapted and staged by Isango’s artistic director, Mark Dornford-May, and featuring, among others, his wife, the actress-singer Pauline Malefane — embrace romantic myth as a resource for an infectious, pulsating performance style. (Some of Isango’s techniques recall the anachronism-
inflected story-scapes of director Mary Zimmerman of “Metamorphoses” and “The Arabian Nights” fame.)
Here, the texts are framed in a way that makes it seem as if these stories were born, like most of the ensemble members, in South African townships. (Dornford-May is a transplant from Yorkshire in Northern England.) In the Lansburgh, the one significant drawback is audibility. Even when the actors are singing or speaking in English — and parts of the shows are in the Xhosa, Tswana and Zulu languages — the accents and the accompaniment garble or muffle the words, especially for American ears. Surtitles might not be an ideal solution, as they would distract from the transfixing performances. But some method needs to be worked out to add a measure of crispness to the articulation.
The program does provide synopses for both shows. As an additional vital fallback, the actors’ entrancing intensity grabs hold of you, and never lets go.
The shrewd handling of Mozart’s overture propels an audience headlong into Isango’s aesthetic. Mandisi Dyantyis, the conductor and arranger, stands mid-stage with his back to us, his face and body projected onto a sheet held aloft by actors upstage. Flanking the set’s raked wooden floor — backed by a towering scaffolding — are two rows of marimbas, percussion instruments whose sounds are produced by tapping on wooden bars; throughout the evening, a variety of company members take up the mallets, while others play drums. The opening establishes the production’s mellifluous bona fides and its debt to Mozart.
What follows is a “Magic Flute,” borne on gorgeous voices and the buoyant unison African dances of choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana. The vocal standouts include the tenor Mhlekazi Mosiea, who played Tamino at the performance I attended. He’s the adventurer who falls in love with a portrait of Pamina (on this night, played by the exemplary Zolina Ngejane), the Queen of the Night’s kidnapped daughter, whose rescue Tamino pursues as his fervent mission. As the queen, Malefane, decked out in a voluminous skirt by designer Leigh Bishop of what look like billowing ostrich feathers, makes a dazzling impression, especially in her Act 2 aria, when the queen famously sings of “vengeance boiling in my heart.”
Tamino’s flute on this occasion indeed sounds magical, as its brassy notes seem to emanate not from a woodwind but from the horn of Herb Alpert. The opera’s lighter moments are interwoven pleasingly here, in the form of the queen’s warrior women, who adopt the winking manner of a girl group, and most delightfully by Zamile Gantana’s clownish Papageno, rewarded at last, via a charming duet, with the Papagena of his dreams (Siyasanga Mbuyazwe).
Set to Dyantyis’s original score, the more contemplative “Venus and Adonis” traces the longings of a goddess who’s been pricked accidentally by Cupid’s arrow and becomes spellbound by the utterly disinterested Adonis (Mosiea, again). As the tale unfolds, the role of Venus passes from Malefane to one actress after another, the exchanges memorialized by the handing over of a swath of white fabric, of the sort that might be worn by a goddess of antiquity.
The sense of a universality in Venus’s suffering is underlined in the repeated shifts of language, in the a capella song segments and the spoken bits of Shakespeare’s verse. As a result, this “Venus” is further confirmation of a company with an abiding interest in bringing disparate cultures into harmonic conversation.
Adapted from the Mozart opera and directed by Mark Dornford-May. Musical arrangements, Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis; choreography, Lungelo Ngamlana; costumes, Leigh Bishop; lighting, Mannie Manim. With Ayanda Eleki, Thobile Dyasi, Noluthando Boqwana, Busisiwe Ngejane, Zoleka Mpotsha. About 21 / 2 hours. $20-$80.
By William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Dornford-May. Original music, Dyantyis; choreography, Ngamlana; costumes, Gail Behr; lighting, Anthony Doran. With Luvo Rasemeni, Bongiwe Mapassa, Zanele Mbatha. About
1 hour 45 minutes. $20-$80.
Productions in revolving repertory until Sunday at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org.