A Dance of Specificity and Spontaneity

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Have you ever seen drawings by the old masters? Or even Picasso or Matisse's line drawings? There’s a confidence, an assurance to them. Without being reductive they have an essential quality - resisting extraneous ornamentation: as if to say, "No, this is line sufficient - you don't need any others."

That's a quality I've always associated with and cherished in Peter Brook's work. That essential simplicity is the very spine of The Suit, which plays through this Sunday at UCLA.  

The play is based on a short story from the 1950's by South African author Can Themba. The plot follows a young married couple in the township of Sophiatown. One morning the husband returns to find his beautiful wife in bed with another man. As the other man dashes out the window, he leaves behind his suit. In an instant, the husband devises a punishment for his wife. She must treat this suit like an honored guest. She must feed it, take it for walks, welcome it into their home: a constant reminder.

But like so much in this beautiful play, that's only one level. More broadly, we experience Sophiatown itself: both the energy, life and oppression of a world on the edge of apartheid. Ultimately, it's a tale of the tragedy of humiliation.  

The Suit, which is performed in English, is a collaboration between Peter Brook, Marie-Hèléne Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk. It's brought to life by an ensemble of six performers: in simplest terms 3 actors and 3 musicians - though those distinctions are pointless as they all create both the poetry and the music of this world. While the story and the performances are all grounded in simplicity - the form is actually quite complex.  Interspersed between the text are musical interludes - there's Bach, Schubert, South African songs, the Blues - a haunting performance of "Strange Fruit" you won't soon forget. The music weaves through the story - at one moment becoming a performance within it - at others:  underscoring.

The performances are stunning. Like those line drawings - there isn't an extraneous gesture or a gratuitous emotion. It's tempting to say the performances are reduced down to their essences but that misses the life: makes it sound cold and choreographed. Somehow the performers dance on the line of specificity and spontaneity turning movement into poetry.

If this is your first time in one of Mr. Brook's worlds you'll be struck by the immediacy, it's presence. He captures the alchemy of actor and audience like no other director. You instantly have the feeling that not only is this performance for you; it includes you as part of its space, part of its time. You can feel it in the direct address of the actors to the audience. You can sense it in the time included for you to experience. You can't deny it in the stillness of the actors that allow you to enter into the story.

If you've never seen Peter Brook's work don't miss this chance. And if the name Peter Brook means nothing to you - no matter - spend 75 minutes with a simple story magically told.

The Suit plays at UCLA in Westwood through this Sunday.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image by Johan Persson