Spoleto 2010 Superlatives

Our overview critic weighs in on the good, the bad, and the ugly

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The sets have been struck, the dancers have flown home, the fireworks have fizzled. Spoleto's done for another year. In the spirit of previous years' "Most Boinkable Artist" awards, here are some categories to mark 2010's hits and misses. No prizes are involved, but the performers below deserve all the bouquets and brickbats they get.

Cleverest Wordplay: Present Laughter
Noel Coward's drawing room comedy was a success when it premiered in 1942. The Gate Theatre proved its staying power with their Spoleto version, which spanned the entire festival. Its lynchpin was Stephen Brennan's performance as Garry Essendine, which was far subtler and more effective than Victor Garber's portrayal in a recent Broadway revival. But even if Brennan hadn't been so good, the dialogue would still have sparkled like fine champagne.

Runner up: Jack Tracey at the Sundown Poetry Series
On June 9, Isle of Palms poet Tracey read some self-penned work in the mobbed Dock Street Theatre Courtyard, regular venue for the Poetry Society's Sundown readings. He respectfully asked that listeners did not applaud between poems. 40 minutes flew by with a cascade of witty, often snappy verses about maturity, relationships, and living in Charleston. This was clearly a man who loved to write, and one who deserves a large following.

Best Mascot: The dog in Flora
Considering that Flora, An Opera had so many comedic elements, it's rather sad that the production's biggest laugh came when the villainous Sir Thomas Testy took his dog for a mid-show walk. The fake canine was pulled across the stage like a small child's toy, garnering a huge reaction.

Runner up: David Lee Nelson
We didn't plan it this way, but the City Paper seemed to adopted CofC alumnus Nelson as its unofficial mascot — at least judging by the number of times he was name-dropped. The comedian even appeared on the cover of our final Spoleto issue. There was something about his Facebook-checking, soul baring show Status Update that captured the zeitgeist and made us want to give the recent divorcee a big hug.

Most adaptable space: Memminger Auditorium
Whether it was used for modern dance, a one-man play, or a freaky carnival, the Memminger delivered. From day to day it was transformed into a dance space flanked with lights (I Can See You in my Pupil), a sideshow with a man-sized catflap (Oyster) or a gig pit fit for a rock band (Die Roten Punkte). Hats off to the auditorium staff who made the changes so smoothly.

Best way to pass time between big shows: Intermezzi
I know that the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is chock full of virtuosi and can be relied upon to deliver the classical goods in any concert. But I wasn't expecting the intimate Intermezzi series to be so engaging, like a zesty blast of music to wake people from the stupor brought on by noon heat and heavy lunches. On June 4, Andriana Chuchman and Tyler Duncan from Flora performed snippets of operas like Le Nozze di Figaro, The Pearl Fishers, and The Barber of Seville, engaging the audience with their playful acting and powerful singing. June 7 featured solos and duets that made contemporary classical concerts accessible to even the dowdiest of attendees.

Best place for stalking the stars: King Street
It was a joy to see performers walking down King and window shopping as if they were nothing special. Caroline Fermin (Gallim Dance) was as cute in real life as she was on stage, and two Ballet Trockadero dancers were also spotted, out of their tutus and in everyday clothes (even if they wore daisy dukes).

Runners up: Vickery's Bar & Grill, Kudu
In Vickery's, Otto and Astrid Rot mingled with their fans after their first Roten Punkte show. In the Kudu coffee house, solo performers David Lee Nelson and Patrick Combs (Man 1, Bank 0) compared notes and beverages.

Most unusual use of an instrument: Block Ice & Propane
Erik Friedlander came with a great rep. He's played with with Laurie Anderson, Hole, and Ennio Morricone. He was still more versatile and entertaining than I expected. The mellow musician constantly re-tuned his instrument, sometimes playing his cello as if it was a guitar albeit still in an upright position. He was so dexterous that on this multimedia road trip, his fingers should have been arrested for speeding.

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  • ©Claudio Casanova/AAJItalia

Runners up: Leszek Mozdzer & Hound Dog of The King Bees
Mozdzer made some audience members jump and others applaud when he placed pieces of wood, metal, and linen on his piano strings, creating otherwordly sounds. Meanwhile, as part of Mad River's Early Bird Blues, Hound Dog used everything from a salt shaker to a hat to warp his guitar in unexpected ways. He played some mighty fine tunes too.

Least visible: The Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Spoleto Finale at Middleton Place should have been impressive. The music was great. The fireworks were bright. But when the Drops invited people to get up and dance, about 50 people complied, obscuring the view of the band for the other 2,950 in attendance. When the musicians stood up they were easier to see, but that also made them easier targets for the large flying bugs that loved the stage lights.

Runner up: Lucinda Childs' Dance
The formal modern movement in Lucinda Childs' Dance was excellent. The presentation was not. Images were projected onto a scrim so that the live dancers could move alongside their filmed counterparts. But the bottom of the screen obscured their feet when they were downstage, meaning that audiences were unable to see all their fancy footwork and had to content themselves with watching the film instead.

More runners up: Everything else at the Gaillard
Because the seats are crowded close together on a shallow level, all the on-stage action was hard to see. Fortunately this problem will be addressed with a refurbished space, planned for 2014.

Hardest working performer: Charlie Ross
Performing One Man Star Wars in the American Theater, Ross was in a more intimate space than usual. The audience was close enough to see every rivulet of sweat drip down his neck as he recounted the space saga at lightspeed. Dressed all in black, swinging an invisible lightsaber, the hardest working actor in the galaxy let fly with a forceload of perspiration and spit. I thought I was safe in the fourth row but I still got hit in the face with saliva. I haven't washed it since.

Runners up: Heather Buck, Sheri McClain-Brown & Rodney Lee Rogers
Buck held the rapt attention of audiences with her opera singing throughout Proserpina. For most of the production, she was on stage alone. McClain-Brown sang with every ounce of her heart and soul practically non-stop for two and a half hours in Mahalia: A Gospel Musical. Rogers didn't just bring the trial of foppish pirate Stede Bonnet to life, but also a horde of other characters too, bounding in and out of the Powder Magazine, reenacting mutinies and sea battles.

Best use of four chairs and four actors: [title of show]
This Village Playhouse gem proved that you don't need lavish sets or a huge chorus line to make an effective musical. The performers relied solely on their acting and singing ability (and a very funny script) to keep the audience hooked.

Best military maneuver: Bunker 13
We're used to improvised comedy in Charleston thanks to The Have Nots! and their offshoots at Theatre 99. We're not so familiar with improvised drama. Seattle's Wing-It Productions showed us how it's done with Bunker 13. Every single night, the Vietnam War-set scenario changed depending on comments from the audiences. These came in the form of "letters" written to the soldiers. The actors incorporated the letters into the show in various ways, making the audience feel like they were part of the production. The resulting 90 minute shows were entertaining and, for the most part, believable. A few mangled Nam facts upset veterans in the audience, but as the cast pointed out, the play could really have been set in any war. "If a bunch of Roman soldiers were sitting together," one actor told me, "they'd probably discuss similar topics." And we'd listen intently, too.

Least publicized: Sunset Serenade Pops Concert
By all accounts this free concert outside the U.S. Custom House was a fun way to spend the evening of May 28. It's a pity that more people didn't know about the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Orchestra's performance of music by John Williams, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and other top pop classical composers. Maybe it was because there were so many other things going on, but the crowd-pleasing orchestra definitely deserved more publicity.

Best cell cop: A little old lady watching Giselle
Before Giselle started, a sweet-looking old girl asked reviewer Gervase Caycedo, "You are going to turn that cellphone off, aren't you?" She asked politely but firmly. Caycedo didn't dare say no. If everyone was as neighborly, the result would either be peace and goodwill for all, or a George Orwell nightmare full of small grannies enforcing phone abuse.

Most tenuous link: Intermezzo II
Chuchman and Duncan sang "Let Us Garlands Bring" during their Intermezzo appearance. Gerald Finzi's song cycle was based on Shakespearean verses, including one that mentioned present laughter — the line that gave Noel Coward the title for his play. Fortunately, the music was charming and its inclusion didn't seem forced.

Biggest missed opportunity: Robert Schumann's 200th birthday
Schumann would have turned 200 this month, but you wouldn't have guessed it by looking at the Spoleto program. At least the North Carolina-based Degas Quartet and the Chamber Music series gave him nods. Maybe Schumann will get his cake later in the year, when the festival hoopla's died down.

The "if you missed this, shame on you" award: Wanderlust
Martin Dockery's breathless story of peril and emotional growth in West Africa was fascinating. It's a pity larger audiences weren't attracted to his one-man show, which has won Best Solo Performance and Sold Out Show awards at other fests. Maybe putting an essentially non-comedic monologue in Theatre 99 wasn't the best idea. But for those who saw it, the show as an unforgettable experience.

Runner up: Degas Quartet playing Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings
Barber's famous music is guaranteed to make your hairs stand on end. The Quartet took it up a notch at their Spotlight Concert at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, moving the crowd with their sensitive treatment of the material.

Chilliest reception: Footlight Players Theatre
I never thought I'd moan about air conditioning in the summer heat, but some venues cranked theirs a notch too low during Piccolo. I learned my lesson about how to dress the first day of the festival, when I wore shorts and a shirt and almost froze in the Footlights. After that I was wrapped up like an Eskimo, sweltering outside but cozy within.

Best in-joke: Joy Vandervort-Cobb's impression of her boss
The solo acting and singing showcase Moments of Joy had the support of a local crowd, who got a particular kick out of Vandervort-Cobb's impression of CofC Theatre Chair Todd McNerney. To the audience's great delight, she captured the face, voice, and walk of her superior. In a two hour production full of humor, different characters, and spontaneous moments, Vandervort-Cobb made it seem as if her returning show was brand new. If all theatrer professors acted like this, lectures would be a lot more entertaining.

Biggest disappointment: Lucinda Childs' Dance
Childs is venerated as an experimental choreographer, so why present this decidedly non-experimental rehash of a 30-year-old dance? Philip Glass' high-pitched music was repetitive even for him. This event really didn't have much going for it, other than serving as a history lesson for dance nuts.

Runner up: Philemon & Baucis
Spoleto thirsted for opera this year, but one of Spoleto's three offerings was an underwhelming piece by Franz Joseph Haydn. The Colla Marionette Co. did its best with a skimpy storyline and little opportunity for spectacle. But for anyone who hadn't seen Colla before, it was hard to tell what all the fuss was about. Thankfully, the same group was able to keep its reputation intact with a rousing version of Cinderella.

Biggest WTF?: Maya Lin's poster
Lin's road map with a hole in it was just too generalized, depicting the state and its surroundings when attention should have been focused on Charleston.

Runner up: Lucinda Childs' Dance
The dancers were efficient and Solo LeWitt's projected film have this production a grand sense of scale, but people were still left scratching their heads and checking their phones.

Biggest disappointment:Forbidden Broadway
The Workshop Theatre has a strong following in Columbia, but it didn't bring much magic to Piccolo. Its riffs on musical theater fell flat. Unlike the similarly themed [title of show], it failed to connect with non-Broadway buffs.

Runner up: Oyster
For some, this mix of dance, movement and creepy carnival was lots of fun. Audiences expecting more complex dance and drama looked through the smoke and mirrors and found nothing behind.

Biggest standing ovation: Villaume's final concert
A few days after he announced his resignation, Music Director for Opera & Orchestra Emmanuel Villaume conducted his last scheduled concert at the Gaillard, a selection of Wagner, Mozart, and Beethoven. The response was such that Villaume returned for more than one encore: Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro and a well-known slice of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Charleston's known for its standing ovations — some performers joke that it's just a ruse to get them up and out the doors faster — but Villaume's "O"s were heartfelt and graciously received.

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