What to do when your mother-in-law dishes up

KoesistasKneidlach

THE mystique of kosher: Chantal Stanfield plays herself in From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach. Photograph courtesy Theatre on the Square.

YOU KNOW THE story from the moment you look at the publicity images for this play. A bride and groom stand next to one another. He wears a yarmulke. She’s Coloured. The rest feels like it will be a miasma of stereotypes and schlock that will draws gusts of sometimes deeply uncomfortable laughter of recognition from the belly of a community fraught with levels of bias and idiosyncrasy. It’s about tradition. And South African Jews. And Coloureds. And by implication, you think it will be peppered with the blandness of well trodden cliché, references to cultural cuisine and low key inside jokes. But in making all these assumptions, you don’t anticipate the feisty, fresh and searing energy that Chantal Stanfield, the performer and writer of this direct and autobiographical piece brings.

Yes, it’s a tale of marriage across local cultures and one in which a wide-eyed Stanfield is exposed to the bizarre and unexplainable litanies of ritual in the practice of traditional orthodox Jewry, when she meets, falls in love with, and marries muso RJ Benjamin. It’s written with a frisky sense of wonder, and while it niftily skirts issues from crude racism to the complexity of benign hypocrisy, it makes for tight and immensely watchable theatre.

Stanfield, a Sewende Laan actress who we saw in Johannesburg in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author a couple of years ago, is one of those performers who you instantly fall in love with: she’s got a sense of presence that is easy on the eye and she fits comfortably in her own skin, rendering her first person narrative in this true story alternatively funny, deeply empathetic and critical almost to the point of cruelty, which heightens the hilarity stakes considerably and forces the whole business from becoming self-indulgent. The work is extremely polished, it’s exactly the right length and resonates with a slick inner rhythm that keeps you focused but never allows the piece to degenerate into the soft schlock that you may anticipate. It’s also a tightly pared down production, in design and set: all the frills and trimmings are described in a beautifully structured text, rich with nuance and wit.

From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach is a tale of uniqueness and curiosity blending the Malay doughnut with the East-European dumpling in such a way that it splays open the complex give and take between everything from Yiddish to Gayle, Muslim antipathies to kugel shallowness. It takes no prisoners in reflecting on the whims and idiosyncrasies of both sides of the wedding, and never stoops to being self-consciously romantic. It’s a love affair cast among the vagaries of Twitter, over protective mothering and culinary and other kinds of bias and is a joy from beginning to end.

  • From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach is written by Chantal Stanfield and directed by Megan Furniss. Featuring music arranged by Paul Choritz, it is performed by Chantal Stanfield at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 18. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606
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Unstoppable tale for six

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BROKEN family with a tale to tell. From left, David Butler, Lebogang Inno, Sandi Schultz and Chantal Stanfield. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

HOW BEST DO you tell a story sullied and broken by trauma? Do you blurt it all out in one brutal shriek? Or do you give it context and framework? Do you make it circuitous?  And funny?  Joseph Heller did it. Alan Bleasdale did it. As did Luigi Pirandello. Magicked into contemporary Johannesburg relevance by director Sibusiso Mamba, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play that begins as you step into the theatre foyer, and it will sweep you away on a journey tinctured and moulded by the philosophical constructs behind characters, actors, ghosts and a story that demands to be heard, but begs not to be told.

The woman mopping the foyer floor minutes before the doors to the theatre opened, got a loud and public scolding by an usher, as he checked audience tickets, officiously, a worried expression on his face. People got twitchy. “Should we go home?” they pondered. “What is the Market Theatre coming to?” they thought.

The doors opened and the same seemingly unrehearsed, seemingly haphazard approach of the performers filtered through, with snippets of music cast from an upright piano, a dog older than God in a car in the parking lot and a general sense of incompletion. Not quite sure how to respond, the audience, roughly respectfully, laughed politely along with the flowing sense of panic about a lack of funding, Brexit, rough and desperate read-throughs, and over dramatised gestures. It really did feel unready. And it was precisely the kind of tricky manipulation of the very mechanisms of theatre that Pirandello used as a foil to his work in 1921.

This astonishingly fine cast, with an exceptional mix of theatre veterans such as Desmond Dube, David Butler and Kate Normington, and relative newcomers and faces from tv, such as Sewende Laan’s Chantal Stanfield and Binnerlanders‘s Sandi Schultz hold this potentially catastrophic piece with the kind of tight steerage and sophisticated authority that really finely honed clowns are capable of. While you might not be able to predict the trajectory of this utterly beautiful piece, you know that you are in safe hands.

With some remarkable costume and set decisions that feature characters who are dead yet present, and others who are trapped in the horror of their own self-fulfilling tale of domestic tragedy, the work is a monster of a piece that takes you all over the place, and gives you everything from snippets of Skeem Saam to bits of Hamlet. In bowing with great respect to the European traditions of Pirandello, and with great humour to the dramatic gestures that punctuated certain theatre traditions, the work develops a powerful momentum maybe twenty minutes in, that prevents you from breathing too loud.

Wise interfolding of Pirandello’s text with asides from the contemporary context, this tale of almost incest and exploitation through several marriages and much sad and hard feeling, offers an overriding sensitive pondering of how the construct of theatre matters to you, a person in the world. It will entertain you completely. And it will haunt you.

  • Six Characters in Search of an Author is written by Luigi Pirandello and adapted and directed by Sibusiso Mamba assisted by incubate Mxolisi Masilela. It features design by Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) assisted by incubate Nthabiseng Malaka, Nthabiseng Makone (costume) assisted by incubate Gift Nwokorie, and Disney Nonyane (sound). It is performed by David Butler, Desmond Dube, Lebogang Inno, Tebogo Konopi, Rebecca Busi Letwaba, Alick Magemane-Mdlongwa, Phumi Mncayi, Dimpho More, Kate Normington, Gontse Ntshegang, Sandi Schultz, Anele Situlweni and Chantal Stanfield and performs in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until July 24. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za