Young Vic / Portobello production of THE MAGIC FLUTE Directed by Mark Dornford-May

There exists in many countries a category of folkloric performance art that appeals primarily to foreigners, whether at home or on tour; you can usually tell such companies from clues like a recommendation in Lonely Planet or the inclusion of “folkloric” in their name. They may be decent, even great. But they don’t necessarily have to be, so long as they provide tourists something that feels like an authentic cultural experience.

South Africa’s Isango Ensemble is, at first glance, one of those troupes. Its multi-talented cast, drawn from Cape Town’s surrounding townships, has toured the world, and its productions have sold out theaters in Paris and London, reinterpreting classical European operas and plays through a uniquely South African lens. But given the ensemble’s global audience, it’s unclear if its productions are supposed to be primarily operas infused with folk elements, or folk performances with opera as a vehicle. Is it the music, the singing, and the drama that win the troupe those accolades, or is it that old Western fixation on the exotic, Edward Said’s “extrareal, phenomenologically reduced” Other?

The Isango Ensemble is, by all evidence, serious about the opera side of things, as much or more so than the cultural-exchange part. Of the two rotating productions it’s presenting at the Shakespeare Theatre this week, though, the first, The Magic Flute, makes a stronger case for that mission than the second, Venus and Adonis. Isango’s take on Mozart’s well-loved opera is a riveting original work in its own right, with ambitious singing, inventive music, action, suspense, and some colorful costumes and dance numbers you won’t see in other Magic Flutes. Venus and Adonis, based more on the Shakespeare poem than the John Blow Baroque opera, is a much less focused mishmash of opera, theater, ballet, and percussive performance, none of which—-other than the folkloric element—-stand very well on their own.

Unfortunately, a major handicap to both is that neither production has projected surtitles, leaving audiences guessing as to what’s going on at any moment. Even if you read the program’s synopsis beforehand—-which you definitely should do—-you’ll be missing out on 90 percent of the nuances that director Mark Dornford-May added to the source material, which we only pick up in snippets. In The Magic Flute, there’s a Gloria Gaynor reference, and a line about Pamina having “dimples as deep as donuts,” neither of which I remember from the original libretto. Both are adapted to several languages, such that characters switch between English, isiXhosa and Setswana within a single conversation. But even for operas with pure English librettos, surtitles are standard, at least at venues as large as the Shakespeare Theatre.

And this is a problem when you’re a step removed from a source that makes little sense in the first place. Venus and Adonis, in case you forget your Greek tragedies, is a story of the Goddess of Love falling in love with a mortal hunk who rejects her advances because…why? Is he not into women? Is she ugly or clingy or really into Ayn Rand or something? He says he’s more interested in hunting, which sounds like a bullshit excuse. Whatever the reason, we see three hot women (actually, they’re all Venus, adding to the confusion) throwing themselves at this guy for an hour, entangling him bedsheets, only to see him run off to be killed by a boar.

In the meantime there are some exciting fight sequences, dramatic drumming, and a half-menacing, half-goofy Death done up in body paint like Gene Simmons, complete with the wagging tongue. There is, however, too much of the confusing stuff with the bedsheets and too little of everything else. At some moments, Venus is an interpretive dance, at others it’s a percussive concert, at others it’s a costume pageant. Any one would be fine on its own, but none gets more than a few minutes’ stage time and you’re too busy figuring out who’s who to notice.

The Magic Flute has an advantage of being a famous opera that follows familiar dramatic tropes. There’s a hero. There’s a damsel in distress. There’s an antagonist who’s not what he seems. There’s a comic sidekick. Insofar as a South African connection, director Dornford-May tells in the playbill a Tsonga folktale of a magic flute used to stop destructive lightning storms caused by birds.

But the most apparent and, to me, impressive innovation is the score, an all-marimba adaptation of Mozart’s original. The opening overture, led by conductor Mandisi Dyantyis on the sloped, bare stage, flanked by marimba players, is delightful, and all the more surprising when those players take the stage themselves, rotating in and out of musician and singing roles. I won’t lie, the singing is not Met-quality stuff, though the pared-down production gives appropriate emphasis to the notable arias; as the Queen, Pauline Malefane doesn’t hold back in her second act lung-buster, Der Hölle Rache. If there are a few missed high notes, if Mhlekazi Mosiea’s Tamino doesn’t project well and has his back to the audience too much, well, I don’t see too many opera singers doing double duty in the orchestra pit, and on two concurrently running productions no less.

So if Venus falls short where Magic Flute does not, whether from a dramatic or simply does-it-make-sense standpoint, neither lack for folksiness. Simply for a very different Shakespeare Theatre experience, you can’t go wrong with either. At this weekend’s performances, both attracted a diverse audience that seemed pleased: the theater crowd, the international do-gooder crowd, even a small hometown (or at least embassy) contingent, the only ones who understood the jokes. But if you’re looking for the full package, romance and drama and music, Mozart’s usually a safe bet, and in the hands of Isango, it’s better than most.

The Magic Flute repeats Tuesday Sept. 16 at 7:30, Thursday Sept. 18 at 8:00, Friday Sept. 19 at 8:00, Saturday Sept. 20 at 8:00, and Sunday Sept. 21 at 2:00 and 7:30. Venus and Adonis repeats Wednesday Sept. 17 at 7:30 and Saturday Sept. 20 at 2:00. $20 – $80. At Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW.

Photos by Keith Pattison