- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2014

With colorful African costumes and tribal drumming, the Isango Ensemble from South Africa makes its Washington debut as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Presentation Series.

The performers arrive at this first stop of their extensive U.S. tour with glowing recommendations and many honors for stage productions and films, among them the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival in London, the Globes de Cristal for Best Opera production in Paris, and the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Washington audiences will experience the troupe’s reimagined classics via bedazzling productions of Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute — Impempe Yomlingo” performed in repertory.

Artistic Director Mark Dornford-May was enjoying a rich theatrical career when he journeyed to South Africa to audition singers for the music hall his company restored in London’s East End. He had planned to direct one show in Cape Town and return home.

Instead, he fell in love with the country and remained to co-found the ensemble with Music Director Pauline Malefane in 2006, a marriage of Western theater and native traditions.

“I arrived at a most extraordinary time and met committed people who are still working with us,” Mr. Dornford-May told The Washington Times. “To find traditional performers, I went into the townships, against local advice, and held auditions in church halls and community halls.

“The rest of the African continent excels in drumming and playing percussion instruments, but South Africa has a vocal tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The voice and singing are involved in all aspects of life here, from christening to death; consequently, the human voice has developed into an extraordinary instrument,” he said. “Our audiences worldwide are especially astounded by the quality of the voices.”

The Isango Ensemble’s repertoire embraces opera, poetry, literature and the 12th century cycle of mystery plays based on the Bible. Each production is uniquely crafted by Ms. Malefane and Associate Director Mandisi Dyantyis to incorporate the distinctive music, dance, costumes and instruments of South African culture and traditions.

The ensemble’s treatment of Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” grew out of a proposal by the Globe Theatre to create a production based on one of the Bard’s history plays. After deep discussion, the company countered by suggesting the epic love poem. The result is a riveting production of a tale derived from ancient legends and plunged into the present by original music composed in-house.

“This work is unique in its use of seven Venuses,” Mr. Dornford-May said. “Why does Adonis constantly reject the goddess of love? It’s easy to dismiss just one woman, but when the man is presented with lots of different options, he still rejects her. Again, we must ask why?

“The simple answer is that he is obsessed with hunting a boar, just as many men are focused on work or another diversion that seems more important than paying attention to a woman with something on her mind.

“Each Venus tries to lure him in her own way: by sound, physicality, humor, or blatant sexuality,” Mr. Dornford-May said. “It’s much too difficult for Adonis, who follows his own heart to Death. We use the South African approach by presenting Death as a physical presence. This adds spice, as do the exotic costumes and dance movements in which horses are represented by carnival-type heads.”

The Isango Ensemble’s alternate production tells the story of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” in contemporary fashion employing three African languages. The plot is particularly South African in its emphasis on forgiveness and the struggle of people to survive.

After its premiere in Cape Town, it traveled to England and sold out performances in London that earned awards and attention from a remarkable group of artists who remain patrons, among them actor Sir Ian McKellen, film director Stephen Daldry and conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

“We play every note Mozart wrote, but they are played on marimbas,” Mr. Dornford-May said. “Because the marimbas do not have sharps and flats, we must adapt. Other native instruments we use are the djembe, a drum played extensively in South Africa, and the kudu horn, made from the horn of the kudu antelope. When the local people did not have a proper drum, they improvised with oil drums, dust bins and whatever they could find. We do likewise.

“Both productions will be extraordinary experiences for our American audiences. We want them to enjoy themselves and, most of all, leave the theater feeling a sense of impact on their lives.”

If You Go

WHAT: The South African Isango Ensemble performs “Venus and Adonis” and “The Magic Flute — Impempe Yomlingo” in repertory.

WHERE: Shakespeare Theater Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW.

WHEN: Sept. 12-21; both productions on Saturday, Sept. 20; “Venus and Adonis” 2 p.m., “The Magic Flute” 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $20-$80; 202/547-1122, ShakespeareTheatre.org.

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