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Theater Review:

"LE COSTUME" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater


Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier continues to extend its reach beyond the English language to showcase the compelling linguistic rhythms of other cultures. Its limited engagement of Peter Brook’s playfully profound staging of the apartheid-era, South Africa-set "Le Costume" ("The Suit") is presented in a lilting Afro-tinged French with projected English subtitles at the compact upstairs studio space. Chicago is the only U.S. stop on the international tour of Brook’s production, which originated at Paris’ Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in 1999.

His longtime collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne adapted Can Themba’s allegorical story, "Le Costume" for the stage, with careful attention to the pantomimic yet fluidly spoken style of South African township theater (rooted in apartheid). Can Themba based "Le Costume" on the once artistically flourishing Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg in the 1950s. Since the town was bulldozed by authorities threatened by its growing outlets for free speech, the writer – who died tragically in 1967 – penned "Requiem for Sophiatown" so that future generations would remember how art could thrive, if only for a short while, amid sanctioned oppression.

Sophiatown is the setting for "Le Costume," a breath of a masterpiece that folds centuries of psychological humiliation into the tale of a man’s suit of clothes. Over the 75-minute running time of this lyrical and bittersweet chamber piece – directed with majestic minimalism by Brook – we experience the pained descent of a seemingly blissful married couple, Philemon and Matilda.

A proud and liberated husband, Philemon treats his wife with grace and sensitivity. She, in turn, cares for him tenderly but longs for something more. An actress-singer, Matilda soon grows bored with her monotonous housewife chores. And, while Philemon is at work, she takes a lover. When Philemon discovers them in bed, the young man dashes off – leaving his suit behind.

Instead of reacting with physical violence, Philemon exacts a strange revenge: He demands that Matilda treat the suit like an honored guest. The neatly pressed outfit joins them for dinner, attends church with them and accompanies them on afternoon strolls.

But this constant reminder of Matilda’s shame eventually drives this ardent young woman into a deep, silent despair – even as she makes an effort to become the perfect housewife. Her public humiliation under the guise of propriety mirrors the insidious tactics entire nations can use to keep its people hemmed-in by guilt and self-loathing.

This is an exquisite production featuring four artists with malleable bodies and melodic voices embodying the meticulous attention actors must pay to the slightest movement or intonation. Chicago actress (and recent graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University) Karen Aldridge delivers an entire symphony with her eyes. Her anguished dish-washing segment with Isaac Kounde’s immovable yet equally tormented Philemon – together with her pantomimic love scene with the suit -- encompasses epic tragedy.

Hassane Kouyate and Tony Mpoudja excel at multiple characterizations, particularly the haughty, fun-loving and inebriated guests who arrive for the doomed climactic party at the couple’s home. From bouncy commuters on a rickety bus to the subtle use of a candle for a glass of beer, the cast creates enticing illusions with just a few well-placed props.

The design team of Chloe Obolensky and Philippe Vialatte bathes the stage in burnt-orange hues framed by clothing racks that suggest the emptiness and abundant possibilities of these impassioned characters’ lives.•

"Le Costume" runs through March 10 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand. Tickets: $50. Call 312-595-5600 or log onto

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