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South Africa's Isango Ensemble Lends A Fresh Ear To Bizet, Britten And The Bard

Isango Ensemble in "uCarmen." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)closemore
Isango Ensemble in "uCarmen." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)

The celebrated South African actor John Kani says Shakespeare sits just fine upon his native tongue. In a 2006 interview, Kani told the British newspaper The Telegraph: “Shakespeare’s words paint pictures in glorious color in my language. They were written by a man whose use of words fits exactly into Xhosa.”

Well, I don’t speak Xhosa, but I did get to hear bits of it in Isango Ensemble’s charming staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” adapted from the Bard’s comedy and Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera and embellished with elements of South African song, dance and folk tradition.

The troupe, which performs barefoot, is brought to Boston by South African Tourism and ArtsEmerson. Having debuted here in 2014 with its Olivier Award-winning reinterpretation of “The Magic Flute,” Isango returns with a highly physical, family-friendly “Dream,” which plays (at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Nov. 22) in rep with the company’s tense and affecting dip into Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen.”

“Dream” removes Shakespeare’s Athenian wood to the townships outside Cape Town while “Carmen,” pared down and retitled “uCarmen,” takes place along an imaginary border of “France, Spain and South Africa.” Artistic director Mark Dornford-May adapted and helms both the muscular “Dream” and the raucous yet austere “uCarmen.”

Isango Ensemble in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)
Isango Ensemble in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)

Oh, and did I mention that the scores of both Western operas have been transposed for an orchestra of marimbas set up in two straight lines on either side of the steeply raked wooden platform that serves as stage for both pieces? There are also drums to punctuate “Dream,” and a brief horn solo turns up in “uCarmen.” But mostly, it’s all marimbas all the time, and it’s marvelous, particularly in “Dream,” where they lend both percussive underlayment and otherworldly tremolos.

Musical arranger/co-director Mandisi Dyantyis is himself a work of art. A precise and dexterous dervish whose conducting of the “uCarmen” overture from center stage is as much dance as direction, Dyantyis can also hold the orchestral fort, when the rest of the ensemble is busy acting and singing, on a single marimba!

Moreover, the two productions showcase, among their musically multi-dexterous casts, a couple of spectacular voices: Those of co-music director Pauline Malefane (Titania, Carmen) and Mhlekazi “Wha Wha” Mosiea (Lysander, Don José). Soprano Busisiwe Ngejane (Helena, Micaëla) is also possessed of some pretty pipes, and Ayanda Tikolo (Snug the Joiner, Escamillo) is a formidable bass. (One caveat: Though the music is sung in English, the lyrics are not always comprehensible and there are no surtitles. So arrive early enough to read the synopses.)

Isango Ensemble has been around since 2000, when its production of “uCarmen” (made into the 2004 film “uCarmen eKhayelitsha,” winner of the Golden Bear at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival) originated. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a newer work. But both pieces adhere to the troupe’s mission to reimagine classics of the Western canon “finding a new context for the stories within a South African or township setting.”

Isango Ensemble in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)
Isango Ensemble in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)

This mission is more apparent in “Dream,” which wraps elements of both Shakespeare’s comedy and Britten’s opera into a woods-outside-Cape Town milieu in which Puck is transformed from hobgoblin/sprite into a “tokoloshe,” in South African folklore a small, hairy spirit bent on mischief, with an eye for kids.

As in Britten’s opera, Puck is here a spoken role, undertaken by a petite, charismatic actress, Noluthando Boqwana, who is hardly hirsute but who plays fairy king Oberon’s lackey like a wobbling little green monster in grasses and face paint, with a rolling, splay-legged walk. Her Puck is as closely related to Caliban as to Robin Goodfellow. (Indeed, when Puck screws up his magic-flower assignment, anointing with bubbles from a screw-top blossom the wrong Athenian swain and causing chaos among the mix-and-mismatch lovers, Oberon afflicts him with cramp, just as Prospero does Caliban.)

Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography is inspired by Puck’s line toward the end of Shakespeare’s play: “I am sent with broom before/ To sweep the dust behind the door.” Here the brooms are wielded by androgynous warrior-fairies in skirts and tanks draped with colored threads. Their brooms, sweeping in rhythm, raised and shimmering overhead, coming together just above the stage as if kissing, are symbols of magic that also serve as shelter or weapons. And their forceful, stomping operators seem more than capable of protecting the fairy queen or carrying out imperious Oberon’s eerily rendered countertenor commands.

“Think you have but slumbered here,” Puck admonishes the audience at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s play. In Isango’s hands, the bewitching snooze has taken less than two hours, including an intermission, but adheres closely to both the Bard’s comedy and the opera (though only portions of either are included). The music, both operatic and indigenous, is reasonably well sung and adds an aura of mystery to the comic proceedings.

Sinethemba Mdena and Pauline Malefane in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)
Sinethemba Mdena and Pauline Malefane in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)

Both Sinethemba Mdena’s Oberon and Malefane’s Titania, their arms trimmed in wings of feathers, are commanding figures (except when the latter is erotically roped to Bottom). The rustics in their ragtag suits, led by Zamile Gantana’s mountainous, preening yet innocent Bottom as they prepare their amateur wedding entertainment, are both individually and collectively funny. And the physical comedy, especially when the quartet of confused lovers forms a human tangle that seems it may never be unknotted, will amuse both young and old.

Partly sung, partly spoken and augmented with bursts of African chant and floor-slapping dance, “Dream” is less opera than music-theater piece. Not so the darker “Carmen,” which is abbreviated but through-sung. And despite a director’s note connecting the production to the prevalence of sexism and violence against women in South Africa, the production is not so site-specific as “Dream.” It is, however, powerful stuff, fiercely rooted in the seductive and ebullient emotionality of Bizet’s gorgeous, familiar music.

Yes, the soldiers who open the piece are derisive and threatening. But so are the women burped out of the cigarette factory, in their jeans and differently twisted blood-red shirts, tough if tempting cookies. As for Malefane’s substantial Carmen, she is not so much femme fatale as sexily confident earth mother (which makes sense, considering that initial conquest Don José’s first Big Love is his mom). And while she brings several layers to her rendition of the “Habanera,” one is guttural (as is her danced seduction of Don José).

Isango Ensemble in "uCarmen." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)
Isango Ensemble in "uCarmen." (John Page/ArtsEmerson)

As the resistant but hopelessly ensnared Don José, Mosiea displays a strong tenor voice on which anger and anguish sit with seemingly effortless strength. His early duet with soprano Ngejane’s Micaëla, sent to save him from Carmen’s clutches, soars — as do his later, painful attempts to bind Carmen, who has decidedly moved on, to their love. Moreover, in this stark, intimate production, the knife fight between Mosiea’s Don José and Tikolo’s commanding Escamillo is as harrowing as the latter’s “Toréador Song” is ubiquitous.

As impressive as the energy the Isango troupers bring to their performances is their versatility. When, in “uCarmen,” Ngejane’s Micaëla isn’t using her feminine wiles, more graceful if less bewitching than Carmen’s, to pull Don José back from love’s abyss, the performer can be viewed stage right manning a mean marimba. It’s hard to think Bizet and Britten would not be impressed.


Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

Carolyn Clay Theater Critic, The ARTery
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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