Feb 1, 2006 at 4:00 am
By the time you read these words, Ipi Zombi? — the South African ghost story currently possessing the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre — will probably be out of your reach. Nothing sells tickets like word-of-mouth, and I can only assume that the drumbeat about this hypnotic incantation already has spread across town faster than a whirling zombie.

As indeed it should, because this eruption of eerie energy is the kind of event that makes our preconceptions about theater seem restrictive and even irrelevant. Ipi Zombi? ignores conventions and expands the possibilities of imagination.

The simple, almost primal, story was inspired by an outbreak of witchcraft hysteria that erupted in South Africa eleven years ago. When a minivan crash killed a dozen black schoolboys, rumors quickly spread that witches had caused the deaths and then had enslaved the youths' souls. Within a matter of weeks, two women thought to be witches were brutally murdered by angry mobs; at the same time, shamans futilely tried to restore the boys to life.

Brett Bailey, a young white South African playwright-director of street theater, drew on these cacophonous events to assemble a theater happening that premiered the following year. That original staging of Ipi Zombi? (which, translated, means "Where Are the Zombies?") featured a cast of 60 and a church choir. When he took the show to London, Bailey streamlined the company to fifteen; this current staging employs fourteen. But in the confined space of the Hotchner, performing in front of a set (designed by Wash. U. student Grace Choi) intended to resemble a voodoo altar, fourteen is more than enough to create paroxysms of raw power.

This is not a literal, orderly recounting of events; this is not The Crucible removed to South Africa. Rather, this 70-minute intermissionless evocation of ritual chant and spiritual possession seeks to evince something more elusive than facts: It is a compelling exercise in faith. We might not believe in witchcraft or voodoo, but Ipi Zombi? persuades us that many do.

Three years ago, as a freshman at Wash. U., Pushkar Sharma read the play in a class in non-Western drama. Last year he proposed a production to the Performing Arts Department season selection committee. In what appears to be an act of astonishing enlightenment, the professors allowed Sharma to direct a production as part of this year's season. Although the show is not billed as an American premiere, I am not aware of its having been done elsewhere in this country.

Nor can I imagine it being staged with any more intensity than occurs here. This is probably the only playbill you'll see all year in which the director's notes include footnotes. Sharma cannot duplicate the South African staging, nor does he try. (As best I could tell, the Hotchner floor is not covered in dry cow dung, as the script calls for.) Instead of a black male narrator, we get a white female — and it works fine, largely because Cory Coleman evokes that husky, Kathleen Turner-like quality that commands. Not that she's all seriousness. The occasional twinkle in her eye lets us know when we're allowed to take a breath.

"This is a true story of sickness and nobody is knowing how to heal it," the narrator informs us. Which perhaps accounts for why everyone is covered from head to toe in white clay; the clay is synonymous with sacred healers. There is something both sacred and irreverent about the evening; perhaps this is what those fifteenth-century morality plays were like when they got out of hand in the streets of medieval London.

The frenzied dancing must be credited to choreographer Cecil Slaughter, though it hardly has the feel of choreography. The masks by Michelle Fealk have personalities all their own that change with the changes in Matt Kitces' mysterious lighting. Apart from the narrator, it would be difficult to single out individuals in the high-powered cast, except perhaps for Jenny Lichtenberg. As the pitchfork-thrusting Devil, she manages to convey simultaneously the lust of Satan and the delectable innocence of Eve.

Those who associate South African theater with the somber, meditative dramas of Athol Fugard will find Ipi Zombi? a stunning release of imagery and color. "My friends, we bring wonderful stories to you," the narrator begins at the evening's outset. Seventy fierce minutes later she warns that the South African sickness "has been inside you," a sentiment clearly directed at the show's original audiences. Half a world away, here in St. Louis, Ipi Zombi? is likely to elicit a quite different feeling deep inside you: the rare exhilaration of having been exposed to a world of wonder.