Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Getting forensic on Spoleto 2007

Posted by Patrick Sharbaugh on Wed, Jun 13, 2007 at 4:02 PM

The 31st Spoleto Festival USA is officially in the past tense. It’s now time to get forensic on the thing. But that’s less easy than it sounds. Part of the difficulty in summing up the festival after the fact lies in its nature; as Mayor Riley noted during the mid-festival tribute to founder Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer knew that, to be truly successful, Spoleto must be much more than merely a series of concerts. “For Menotti, the word ‘festival’ was not a throwaway term,” hizonner observed in his memoriam. “Everything and everyone must be touched by it. Menotti knew that Spoleto must become the life and the patina of the city for 17 days.” If you’ll glance at a festival calendar, it’s obvious organizers take Menotti’s mission seriously. Toss Piccolo Spoleto’s hundreds of separate events and the scores of chance encounters and random pearls of unpredictability the twin festivals generate into the mix, and you’ve got a whole that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.

This all renders the greater impact of the shebang essentially unsumuppable. Still, here goes.

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Philip Glass. The commentators can harangue all they want over how the 2007 festival will be remembered going forward. 2007 will hereafter be the year of Philip Glass. It’s guaranteed by the double-whammy of the minimalist composer’s new American premiere here and the fact that his 50-foot face bookended the Gaillard Auditorium, to say nothing of the umptillions of posters, storefronts, program guides, bookmarks, T-shirts, and coffee mugs all with his own mug on or in them. Spoleto ’07 was Glass’ Being John Malkovich moment, and it’ll always be remembered that way, no matter that people thought it was Bruce Springsteen on the posters.

Blogging. It may seem like an insider’s observation, just shameless navel gazing, but the stats argue otherwise. There were five professional, local blogs keeping hourly tabs on the festivals this year, not including the occasional posts from The State and The New York Times. And people were reading — and watching, and listening to — them. Our three blogs had 308,967 hits over the three

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weeks of the festival, and the streaming audio clips on the Spoleto Buzz blog were played 1,056 times. Anyone with a connection to the web was awash in commentary and reviews, random observations, last-minute schedule changes, and endless gigabytes of multimedia. The P&C’s self-appointed blogging team lugged a videocamera everywhere they went and techies Dan Conover and Geoff Marshall recorded a passel of podcasts in an ersatz studio in the newsroom there. Less inclined to the production and editing demands of video, I captured audio clips of dozens of festival performances, posted scads of field interviews, and recorded another dozen Spoleto Buzz podcasts with festival artists, as I did last year. The upshot: the way media outlets cover the festival — and the way people in the city experience it (and, to some inevitable degree, the way festival organizers promote it) — changed forever this year.

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Spoleto, Italy. There were whisperings of a possible reunion with the festival’s Umbrian birth mother immediately following Gian Carlo Menotti’s death in February. This year’s opening ceremony, where both Spoleto, Italy, Mayor Massimo Brunini and our own Little Joe pitched for a patchup between the two festivals, confirmed the rumors. For the moment, reestablishing old ties is complicated by the fact that Menotti’s son, Chip is still in charge of the programming and purse strings at our European counterpart, if just barely. Barring his resignation (not as unlikely as it sounds, given that festival’s financial situation), talk of getting into bed together again is just that: talk.

The weather. Things were fine, even splendid, weather-wise until the middle of the festival’s second weekend, when tropical storm Barry swept inland south of us and pummeled the city (and Dock Street Theatre opera L’ile de Merlin) with a soaking, windblown welcome to the first day of hurricane season. No sooner had we squeegeed ourselves off than we were reminded it was also high summer, with 90-plus-degree heat through the end of the festival.

Ticketmaster. This company belongs on the same shit list as Wal-Mart and Enron. The City of Charleston needs to kill Piccolo’s contract with these West Hollywood hoodlums and handicap regional guys Etix’s bid next year. The opening weekend ticketing snafu ought to give the Office of Cultural Affairs more than enough leverage to wriggle out of a ROFR.

Left-leaning political commentary. There was no shortage in either of this year’s festivals. At the Village Playhouse, they sang, “What is Urinetown? Urinetown’s a lie, a means to keep the poor

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in check until the day they die. Urinetown is here. It’s the town wherever people learn to live in fear.” (But with klezmer music.) Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny skewered unchecked materialism, and historical slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey might as well have been called an “enemy combatant” at the American. L’ile de Merlin satirized hubristic notions of utopianism (some wondered if the island was in the Red Sea), Major Bang: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb was a Dr. Strangelove-schitzophrenic satire of post-9/11 national insecurity, and new music concert Katrina Ballads made mincemeat of Bush & Co.’s own words.

Costumes. Women swooned over the duds in the Gate Theatre’s Constant Wife — the shoes, the hats, the dresses, the handbags, even the gloves — but the rest of the ’07 festival had some notable couture, too. The multicolored day-glo suits in Mahagonny were safely observed only through s

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moked glass. Mephistopheles and his angelic counterpart in Faustus were … well, indescribable (see the picture below left), and few who saw Merlin will ever forget Richard Troxell’s full-body smiley-face outfit as the “badass philosopher” (or the dance that went with it). Closer’s Pelham Spong was radiant in fuck-me heels, bra, and fishnets, bending over during a theatrical pole dance, and Julie Ziff’s inventive costuming for Urinetown was a little bit Oz and little bit Third Reich. Aurélia Thierrée’s last outfit, which opened up and allowed a model train to pass on a track through her torso, was one for the history books.

Rotting innards. I may have been the only person who didn’t care for Sekou Sundiata’s

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healthcare-meets-spoken-word rumination on struggling with kidney failure, blessing the boats. Sundiata’s gifts as a performer were unmistakable, and I said as much, but the subject matter left me cold. According to several readers, though, my distaste for the theatre piece proved that I hate the organ transplant system and every person who’s ever had one. Here’s hoping I never need a kidney come Spoleto season.

Parking. It was a quick way to give yourself an ulcer last year, if your destination was anywhere near the CofC’s Simons Center for the Arts — or the Cistern, or Theatre 220, or the Sottile Theatre. And it was just as bad this year, with the formerly spacious parking garage at St. Philip and George streets now a faded memory and whatever’s going up there still under construction. And that damned bicycle-riding CofC parking cop was the bane of my existence. God forbit any of those spaces actually be used by anyone at night, while school’s out…

Charles Wadsworth. The 78-year-old host of Spoleto’s Chamber Music is as much a fixture of the Big Festival as the Dock Street itself, but his brand of suggestive, self-deprecating humor — or “corny palaver,” as New York Times blogger James Oestreich put it mid-festival — isn’t for everyone. His age makes him mostly immune to criticism. But any man 20 years younger letting loose with the same off-color remarks about the female musicians in his employ would be sued to within an inch of his innuendo.

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Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe. They’re going to have to start their own festival soon. Waitaminnit, they already have. (See the Charleston Comedy Festival.) Point is, the inventory of top sketch, improv, musical, and other comedy-esque acts in Theatre 99’s ginormous Piccolo Fringe could have occupied their own zip code this year. Funniest material: Upright Citizens Brigade, as per usual. Biggest surprise hit: a tie between the surrealistic sketches of the Cody Rivers Show and the whip-smart Harvard Sailing Team, none of whom went to Harvard. Biggest letdown: Human Giant, who phoned in a show that was more an appearance than a performance, little more than clips from their show and back-patting banter about being semi-celebrities in Charleston.

Cellphones. Are people whose cellphones ring in the middle of performances evil, stupid, thoughtless, or simply minions of the Devil? And for punishment, should they be a) forced to eat their phones, b) drawn and quartered, c) buried alive with a phone whose ringtone is Beyonce’s “Irreplacable”? My solution: pack ’em off to Urinetown.

Magic. Between the wonderfully unpredictable Major Bang: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb and Aurélia’s Oratorio, there was more illusion on the Emmett Robinson stage this year than at a David Copperfield fan club convention.

Festival foxes. I worried that my “Most Boinkable Artist” category in last year’s wrap was too, shall we say, indelicate. But a conversation with Spoleto admins and organizers at the festival finale convinced me it had to go in again. The top honors went to:

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1) Heather Buck. The angel in Faustus was indeed a hottie, and a sweetheart to boot. Plus she exploded and burst into flames at the end of the opera. That’s just badass.

2) Keith Phares, who played Pierrot in L’ile de Merlin (and appeared in both of the two recent Don Giovannis here). It must have been the Keanu Reeves Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure impression.

3. Rubberbandance’s Lila-Mae Talbot. Cute as a button, limber, and with a French accent. What more need be said?

4. Andrew von Oeyen. Youthful blond virtuoso pianist von Oeyen is a veteran of last year’s list, and if he seems a little too fond of his own picture, where’s the harm in that?

5. The Constant Wife’s Jade Yourell. As Constance’s best friend Marie-Louise, who’s not so secretly knocking boots with Constance’s husband John, Jade was a beautiful, brainless bonbon. As a beautiful, brainy actress, she’s even better.

Nihilism. This $20 word got bandied about a lot in the wake of the premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s Faustus, the Last Night. Unless you’re a fan of either Neitzsche, Heidegger, or The Big Lebowski, you may be unfamiliar with its philosophical ramifications for that opera. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though. It’s probably nothing.

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Kudu. That’s Kudu Coffee, for those of you who missed finding this urban slice of the African subcontinent — and the unofficial watering hole and sunning spot for herds of Spoleto Festival artists — on Vanderhorst Street across from St. Matthew’s Church. Great coffee, free wireless, plenty of comfy seats, live entertainment, a spacious enclosed courtyard, and within spitting distance of a handful of festival venues, Kudu was the place to go if you wanted to hang with the festival in-crowd.

Underground art. At the last minute, after much urging on my part — and coming just one week

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after the city’s Very Important Announcement of a renewed crackdown on graffiti — graphic artist Johnny Pundt sent me this year’s best subversive slant on the festivals, taking down Spoleto and the graffiti crackdown in one fell swoop. Keep Charleston Beautiful, Motherf#@cker!” it read, around a stencil of the mayor. “Spoleto 2007: Say ‘No’ To Unapproved Art!” I didn’t see many around town, but it’s the thought that counts.

Controversy. Spoleto wouldn’t be Spoleto unless it chapped a few asses with its programming, and so it was. Most of the debate, however, took place within the rarified circles of music theorists and connoisseurs, not among the plebeian masses, sad to say. Faustus, the Last Night was either groundbreaking genius or unlistenable tripe, depending on which critic you asked. Glass’ Book of Longing was either a delightful melding of music and literature or a nose-dive into shlocky, saccharine pap. L’ile de Merlin was a gut-bustingly sharp satirical updating of an otherwise unremarkable opera to some, a crass, unsubtle piece of pandering that sacrificed music to silly spectacle for others. Neither did Dood Paard’s spare, postmodern medEia do anything to mollify the unquiet gripers. It was a banner year for “challenging” art at the festival. Menotti, rest his soul, would be proud.

Friday, June 8, 2007

A dream within a dream

Posted by Patrick Sharbaugh on Fri, Jun 8, 2007 at 3:21 PM

It’s hot out there. Welcome to summer.

Plenty of tickets left for State Ballet of Georgia’s Swan Lake, apparently, as the Big Festival seems to have set itself an uphill battle filling the Gaillard’s 2,700 seats for five performances of a 2-hour, 130-year-old classical ballet, ravishing as it may be. And word has it plenty of those patrons are sneaking out at intermission. (Best not to ask Janet at SpoletoToday about this.)

The same cannot be said of Aurélia’s Oratorio, whose four remaining performances in the Emmett Robinson are said to be so stuffed the Pope couldn’t score a seat with a pocketful of C-notes and indulgences. After my experience with it last night, I can understand why.

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People have dangerous relationships to the inanimate objects in Aurélia’s Oratorio, and appearances are decieving. Props have personalities, mundane items throb with life, and even the set dressing gets up and goes when you least expect it. The red velvet curtains framing the proscenium become a central character in the magical, mostly wordless show, and remarkable things happen in their folds and lofty reaches. Aurélia Thierrée rides the blood-colored drapery like a blonde, silken djinn, slipping into and out of their embrace with an acrobatic elan.

It seems a dream world set to accordions, chamber music, and gypsy jazz, which is precisely what Thierrée – a grandaughter of Charlie Chaplin – has in mind with her 90-minute (and too short at that) French circus theatre performance. The illusion- and surrealism-filled vignettes of Oratorio cast a spell on audience members very much like a waking dream, in which a world of impossibilities and opposites reigns. Shadows walks across the stage casting human beings in their wake, kites fly people, an audience of puppets applauds a human head performing for them, a trenchcoat tussels with its owner, dragging him about the stage and giving him a pummelling. In one enchanting sequence, which takes place behind a cascading waterfall of white lace curtains, an elaborate lace creature appears to snap at Thierrée’s foot; it pulls away and her entire leg seems to unravel, leaving just a threadworn stump. Unconcerned, she produces a pair of knitting needles and knits her lace leg back together from thigh to frilly toes.

It’s a different kind of illusion from that flourished by Steve Cuiffo in Major Bang, but even more mysterious – for while we know how it is done, we marvel at our own willingness to fool ourselves into thinking we don’t. That, friend, is good theatre.

Mid-performance cell phone rings: 1 (Yet again, directly beside me. The money quote: “I hardly ever get calls.”)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Of fathers, sons, and magic clowns

Posted by Patrick Sharbaugh on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 at 2:43 PM

Yesterday afternoon, 3pm-ish found this Spoleto Buzz blogger in a mostly full Theatre 99, taking in Andrew Connor and Mike Mathieu’s quadruple threat – singing, dancing, acting, and improvising – for their mostly scripted comedy act known as The Cody Rivers Show. “Singular” is probably too mild a description for what these two Ohio Wesleyan grads do. “Bizarre” is closer to the quick, but “physical” and “intelligent” also belong in the mix.

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Wearing green jump suits and wigs, Connor and Mathieu’s sketch comedy was smart but sometimes surreal, as when the two performed a bit between a schoolteacher and one of her unruly students’ father. At one point, one of them used the four-finger “air quotes” gesture to suggest skepticism, and the two were off like shots, generating new hand gestures for every piece of punctuation that popped up: brackets, ellipses, parenthesis, question marks. The teacher had an emergetic fit of a monologue that looked like an exercise in calisthenics. Sketches had no transitions between them, but the two actors filled the in-between spaces with strange singing and dancing acts that, frankly, defy description.

The sketches themselves were unconventional gems of physical comedy that often squeezed pathos for laughs. A young boy tried to tell a crowd about his trip to an aquarium with his father, while his father, encouraging him from the audience, kept interrupting and correcting and amending the story. Finally, the frustrated boy exploded, launching into an elaborate, top-volume lie about 4,000 hot air balloons descending onto a beach, whereupon thousands of clowns emerged from them and sang their magic song, which caused the ocean to retreat. The clowns scooped up all the exposed starfish, climbed back into their balloons, and sailed off. In another sketch, the pair played the boy and his father at the aquarium – though it’s more accurate to say they voice-acted the boy and his father while their four hands played the creatures in the tank: shrimp, crabs, schooling fish, turtles, sharks, sea anemonae, starfish, and – hilariously – a piece of poisonous coral.

Like the Harvard Sailing Team, the Cody Rivers Show’s sketches kept a finger on a slim narrative thread and worked established themes into many of the sketches. Near the end of the show, they mimed a pair of characters who seemed to be operating some kind of machinery from up in the air. Eventually, their balloon landed, and the two clowns emerged onto the beach. After that ... well, I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Mid-performance cellphone ring count: 1 (again, right next to me).

Sunday, June 3, 2007

This Wei and that Wei

Posted by Patrick Sharbaugh on Sun, Jun 3, 2007 at 5:31 PM

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Despite gale-force winds, sideways rain, and the very real threat of becoming an impromptu flying projectile, I ventured out to see Shen Wei Dance Arts’ “Connect Transfer” at the Gaillard Saturday night. Outside, there was a chaos of thunder and lightening; inside, Shen Wei and his dancers delivered an work of abstract, sublime beauty that somehow seemed like stillness itself. The performance began in complete silence, with dancers pairing up like black-clad insects, slowly stretching and straining against one another in the whisper thin atmosphere of the huge stage. When the music began, a haunting string quartet by Kevin Volans, the dancers exploded into action, singly and with each other, spinning and unfolding across the canvas-covered floor like windup toys of springs and rubberbands, all the while wearing special mitts and booties covered with paint that traced their progress across the stage.

The middle part of the work featured a strange piano work from contemporary Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (the So Percussion quartet performed his monumental concert work Pleiades for the Music in Time series two years ago), which sounded like something that, if your six-year-old were causing it to emerge from a piano, you’d smack her and and tell her to cut it out. Here, though, it accompanied dancers who staggered around the room, looking like drunks constantly on the verge of falling over, waving their arms and legs wildly in an effort to remain upright.

In the midst of it all, this Spoleto blogger was suddenly confronted with a crisis of action: a cell phone began to ring. And it was coming from the pocket of the gentleman sitting right next to me. I turned slowly to look evil directly in the face, and I was struck by its banality. He was a fattening white-haired man of about 55, dressed in a dark business suit and wearing glasses. He knows who he is. I stared at him while he let the screaming object in his pocket ring itself out. He made no move toward it, obviously wanting everyone around us to think it was sombody else’s phone, anybody else’s. But he knew, and I knew. After the phone had quieted, he reached into his pocket and powered it down, wringing one last electronic sob out of it. What could I do? I wanted to stand up, face the thousands, and point to him. I wanted to whisper despicable things in his ear. I wanted to smash his phone into a thousand electronic pieces. But I looked up at the dancers, zen and quietude and such intensity of focus cascading off them, and I raised up the notepad I’d been scribbling on to where he could see it. “I WAS SITTING RIGHT BESIDE THE ASSHOLE WHOSE CELLPHONE RANG,” I wrote in big block letters under my other notes.

To the gentleman who was sitting in Row E, seat 20 for Shen Wei Dance Arts on Saturday night, I have a message for you. To hear it, go see Dood Paard’s medEia and listen to the very last words of the play.

After the performance, everyone walked up onto the stage and marveled at the paint-covered artifact of the dance company’s efforts of just moments before. One of those standing beside me was local Spoletian Rosie Ballentine, aged 12, who was willing to share her thoughts on the performance with me. Give a listen:

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