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Famed Theater Director Peter Brook Shows Strong 'Suit' at UCLA

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Englishman Peter Brook was already among the world's most prominent theater directors even before he established his own company at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in the 1970s. (A documentary film about the 89-year-old artist and his work, Peter Brook: The Tightrope, directed by his son Simon, happens to have opened just yesterday at the Laemmle Music Hall.) One of Brook's latest productions, created with longtime theatrical collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk, is The Suit, based on a story by apartheid-era black South African writer Can Themba. Nearing the end of its two-year world tour, The Suit is being presented this weekend and next by CAP UCLA.This disjointed, but vivid production relates the tale of Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah), a mid-20th century black South African man living in the Johannesburg suburb Sophiatown, who finds out that his beloved wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) is cheating on him in their home after he goes out to work each day. Sneaking back in the house one morning, Philemon catches his wife in bed with her lover, who hastily flees the scene, leaving behind his suit. From then on, Philemon demands that she treat the suit like a member of the household, setting a place for it at the table, feeding it and socializing with it. Matilda accepts this bizarre punishment with good humor and even a sense of relief that she's hardly had to pay a price for her infidelity - until Philemon takes the bitter game too far.

These central personal events are set against the sociopolitical backdrop of the South African government's impending action to displace the black population of Sophiatown and ultimately to raze the township and build an entirely new white residential community in its place. A resident of Sophiatown himself, the writer Themba ended up living in exile in Swaziland, his works banned in South Africa, and he died an alcoholic before his story was revived first as a South African stage play and then in two different versions by Brook.

The story of Philemon and Matilda is conveyed elliptically in a series of largely self-contained scenes featuring Jeremiah, Kheswa and a third actor, Jordan Barbour, who plays a few different roles. These three are joined onstage by a trio of musicians who also briefly step in from time to time to play small parts. (An additional group of surprised performers also takes the stage at one point). Most of these scenes are more like vignettes in that while they are nearly all individually compelling or charming, they don't lead in to one another in a way that sustains an emotional arc.

Many of the scenes feature musical numbers sung by Khwesa, including uplifting versions of Miriam Makeba's "Malaika" and "Ntylo Ntylo." Right after he describes the violence being perpetuated in connection with the government initiative to destroy Sophiatown, Barbour's rendition of the famous Billie Holiday number "Strange Fruit" is appropriately haunting.

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If ultimately this production never quite drives home its ostensible premise that the tragedy of Philemon and Matilda are an echo of the official horrors perpetuated by the apartheid regime, it's still worth seeing for the three powerful performances by its leads and the inimitable spare narrative style that Brook and his company deliver.

The Suit will be performed today at 2:00 at 8:00 and tomorrow again at 2 at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus. The run continues next weekend with 8:00 shows Thursday through Saturday. Tickets $35.85 - $73.25; discounted seats available for Thursday night's show through lastagetix.