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First Nighter: Peter Brook's Well-Tailored Suit, Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Ill-Fitting Life and Times

01/21/2013 05:13 pm 17:13:09 | Updated Mar 23, 2013

Peter Brook, at 87, is still filling the empty space on which he elaborated in his widely influential 1968 screed The Empty Space. The Suit, his latest work, beautifully shaped with long-time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne and Frank Krawczyk, reworks Can Themba's novel of the same title, as previously adapted for the stage by the author with Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon.

There may be no way to overestimate the lovely effect of this allegory about the brilliantly malevolent punishment Philomen (William Nadylam) acts out on cheating wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) when -- tipped to the adultery by a friend (Jared McNeill, also serving as narrator) -- he returns home and finds a stranger (Rikki Henry) in his bed.

Because the man flees in his underwear, Philomen sentences Matilda to treat the abandoned suit and tie as a guest due every show of hospitality. Matilda must bring the suit to meals and pretend to feed the hook of the hanger on which it's draped. The suit must sit on a chair in the couple's bedroom. Matilda must carry the suit when the estranged pair stroll through town.

Themba's cautionary tale of revenge is profoundly grim -- as is the tragic outcome with its moral about the wages of unforgiving retribution -- but Brooks has a transcending notion. He presents it as a 75-minute entertainment that rather than undermining the story immeasurably enriches it.

To begin with, he chooses actors Kheswa, Nadylam and McNeill for their physical appeal and charm. Throughout, he pauses the action so that they not only address the audience but for one party sequence bring three patrons onto the stage. In more ordinary circumstances, this convention could be extremely off-putting. Not here, thanks to the cheer with which it's carried out.

On a stage where set and costume designer Oria Puppo has placed several brightly painted straight-back chairs and a few metal coat racks on casters to stand in for doors and windows, the major addition is music, lots of it.

Raphael Chambouvet enters playing Franz Schubert's "Serenade" and, switching to piano, is soon joined by guitarist Arthur Astier and, on trumpet, David Dupuis. They carry on virtually non-stop with the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me," either as underscoring or accompaniment. In contrast to Matilda's despair, Kheswa sings several songs joyfully. Nadylam chants Lewis Allen's "Strange Fruit," and immediately Brook relates American intolerance to South African repression.

That the musicians also double as amusing cast members is a great plus in a production that -- including Philippe Vialatte's lighting -- is chockful of pluses and completely devoid of minuses.

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Episodes 3 and 4 of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Life and Times Episodes 1-4 got on my last nerve so much that I almost forgot Episodes 1 and 2 of the Soho Rep production presented at the Public as part of the Under the Radar Festival. And those episodes deserve a few positive comments.

Yup, lovers of unconventional theater, the concluding two-and-a-half hours of the 10-hour-plus marathon felt like an excruciating punishment foisted off by company co-founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, but still there's something to be said for their newest NtofO attempt to make a seemingly impossible premise convincingly stage-worthy.

The challenge award-winning Liska and Copper gave themselves this time was to tell someone's life story verbatim. Apparently, the original idea was to have more than one respondent, but the crusading creators concluded that once associate Kristin Worrall recounted her autobiography over the phone and over a ton of hours, that was all they needed to get going.

Now they've incorporated their troupe into a mostly sung-through Worrall reiteration. To get things going initially, Julie LaMendola comes out in gray dress and red accessories to accompany with T'ai Chi-like movements the more or less chronological tale of Worrall's existence from birth. The drill is enhanced with razor-sharp precision by troupe members and chorus who take up other sections of Worrall's idiosyncratic yet somehow universal past. And they're not just women but men as well.

Undoubtedly, the reason Episodes 1 and 2 are successful is that the audience has never seen anything exactly like them. They've seen things somewhat similar in the way of verbatim accounts -- Wallace Shawn's My Dinner With Andre, Anna Deavere Smith's stage documentaries, sections of A Chorus Line, the song "Frank Mills" from Hair -- but never anything so audaciously attenuated.

While music by Daniel Gower, Robert M. Johanson (who shows up on stage, too) and flutist Worrall plays underneath -- along with the occasional sound effect, lighting effect and blasts of smoke eddying over the footlights -- intrepid patrons are filled in on every recollection Worrall spills. Her birth, her first memories, her grade school experiences and friends she made along the way, her menstrual onset, her catechism classes, her first kiss, her junior prom (or maybe senior prom, since there's much she admits to forgetting) -- are relived.

With every "um," "like" and "you know" intact. This signals that Worrall is from the generation that compulsively inserts "like" into most sentences at least once and often two or three times. So Life and Times is yet another current entry into the annals currently defined by Lena Dunham's Girls, where today's post-feminist young women spill what they know and do and everyone else can choose to listen or not.

But what of the horrifying Episodes 3 and 4? Here, Liska and Copper jettison the regimental and -- because Worrall has referred to a mystery-loving mentor -- ask their players (only a few of whom can really sing or act with aplomb) to deliver Worrall's outpouring as if performing a work like The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie's long-running hit.

Not only are the cast members totally inept at the assignment but Liska and Pavol ineptly direct the spoof. Worse yet, they extend the conceit for two-and-a-half hours. The sequence does have one positive aspect: It's a warning to anyone considering the projected Life and Times Episodes 5-10.

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