With the word “magic” in the title, “The Magic Flute” is bound to be an exciting adventure. The famous tale by composer Amadeus Mozart details the love story of Tamino, a young traveler, and Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, and the trials Tamino has to endure to rescue Pamina and be together. What made this performance magical was not fairy queens or enchanted trials, but the expert blend of cultures, stories and realities.
The Isango Ensemble, a collection of South African performers of all ages, is a unique group that reimagines Western theatre classics in a South African context. Blending cultures, races and experiences, the group presents innovative works that transform a famous classic into a seemingly entirely new story. They bring their works of cultural fusion all over the world, including a variety of people into the conversation. Their production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was one of their many ingenious inventions of taking a while known classic and making it almost unrecognizable in the best possible ways.
Milling around the Power Center stage before the show, the cast chatted with each other, looking out into the growing house, making the audience feel comfortable in their unexpected, un-operatic surroundings. The actors doubled as the musicians, with the music director taking on just as big of a role onstage right next to them.
Everything about this performance was exposed: the wings and the roof of the stage were uncovered, there were barely any props, all the trials that Tamino went through were portrayed by actors shaking sheets with Sharpie letters on them. Yes, having the set of an internationally touring show consist of bedsheets was a bit perplexing. But in the context of the show — with dustbins for drums and recycled bottles for sounds — it made perfect sense. The set let the performance speak for itself
This version of the famous opera was unexpectedly humorous and playful. Papageno, Tamino’s sidekick, stole the show with his hilarious side comments and facial expressions. The Spirits were portrayed as a version of The Supremes, dancing in different sixties inspired costumes and hyping up the playful, snapping trio image. Papageno even made a reference to Gloria Gaynor and her famous song “I Will Survive.” All of these little quirks made the show accessible and interesting. It drew the audience in and made us feel like we were a part of the show ourselves.
The most compelling part of this show was the beautiful blend of cultures. Languages blended together seamlessly, weaving in and out of dialogue and song. But no matter what language scenes were done in, everything was still understandable. If one actor began speaking in a different language, not only would that actor still succeed in getting her point across, but the scene partner would pick up the slack and her reactions would explain the scene.
These intercultural conversations that the Isango Ensemble perpetrated are what push theater to progress. Just performing the same shows the same way does nothing to enhance the narrative. Innovation and creativity leads to discovery, all of which is presented in the works of the Isango Ensemble.