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Spoleto Festival USA 2019: Less opera, more theater, and a new finale spot

Making sense through storytelling

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Yes, there's an unfettered, bloodthirsty opera that will hit the back of the Gaillard with the take-no-prisoners sonic stir of Richard Strauss. And, sure, Cistern Yard will again resound with a glorious mix of high-flying jazz, boundary-pushing bluegrass and otherworldly folk. And, absolutely, gravity-defying dancers will whorl across stages in ways that transfix and transcend.

However, Spoleto Festival USA 2019 inarguably finds its artistic ballast in theater, with a double-digit line up of classic plays, cutting-edge dramatic works, musical marvels, and physical feats. There are narrative-rich dance works that so straddle genres festival programmers may be hard pressed moving forward to neatly tuck productions into one tidy category.

Hijacking one of the two festival spots usually slotted for opera is the musical theater work Path of Miracles, which enlists a festival veteran, director John La Bouchardiere (of 2014 El Nino), to harness the vocal beauty of the Westminster Choir for a score by Joby Talbot. Tracking the epic spiritual journey of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, the work, which is conducted by the festival's Joe Miller, avails of the acoustically superior Gaillard Center to tell its story of a pilgrimage that promises a transcendent time.

"Path of Miracles is not an opera, however the music is staged," says general director of Spoleto Festival USA, Nigel Redden, who devised the production with the goal of doing something with a chorus, in order to involve the Westminster Choir. "The music is gorgeous, and Joe Miller is very excited about it. Also, it lent itself to being staged."

And about that sole opera, Salome. Richard Strauss's one-act wonder based on Oscar Wilde's play is conducted by Steven Sloane and shares the same directors as the 1987 festival production, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. Reinterpreting the Biblical story of a female fixed on getting the head of John the Baptist, it takes over the Gaillard for a trim four performances.

"I think it goes to the heart of what the festival does," says Redden, who views the production as a celebration of Caurier and Leiser. "This is a very different Salome than the one they did in 1987," noting how the themes taken on by Strauss or Wilde have to be viewed differently today. "It's a wonderful opera to explore, and I think that Patrice and Moshe want to look at in a very different way."

Shakespeare's Globe - SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Spoleto Festival USA
  • Shakespeare's Globe

The London-based Shakespeare's Globe lands back at the Dock Street Theatre (after its 2015 Romeo and Juliet), this time bringing the triple threat of Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles, and including crowd-sourced "audience choice" evenings for which those in the seats get to pick the play.

Festival regulars will no doubt welcome the latest theatrical brainchild of three-time participant 1927 (Golem), the English company that this go trains its quirky, animation-drive vision on seldom spun folktales for the world premiere of Roots, folding in Peruvian prayer boxes and assorted creatures to do so. "One of the things that makes their work so exciting is that it doesn't seem robotic," says Redden. "They manage to do it in a way that is spontaneous."

What Girls Are Made Of - SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Spoleto Festival USA
  • What Girls Are Made Of

Over at Memminger, the equally upbeat Raw Material and Traverse Theatre Company from Scotland goes for the grunge in What Girls Are Made Of, amping up a coming-of-age story with the help of a live rock band. Written by Cora Bissett and based on her own teenage diaries, the Edinburgh hit looks to be large and charged.

And, two Brooklyn-based companies bring on theatrical invention. Target Margin Theater brings Pay No Attention to the Girl, directed by founder David Herskovits to retell the shape-shifting tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Also from Brooklyn, 600 Highwaymen lay down The Fever, an interactive think piece on human connection that will transform Woolfe Street Playhouse into a party with fascinating implications.

Circa - SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Spoleto Festival USA
  • Circa

The physical and theatrical collide and fly in Circa, the Australian acrobatic circus billed as "blurring the lines between movement, dance, theater, and circus," all to the sounds of Bach, compliments of a live violinist. Similarly, the Beirut-based Caracalla Dance Theatre brings spectacle and balletic rigor to its own retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, complete with over-the-top, ornate costumes and a score encompassing Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Ravel's Bolero.

Also in dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company returns, having now tellingly plucked from its name the word "dance" to place increased emphasis on narrative. Taking its cues from W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, the works relies as much on text, song and storytelling as it does on movement. "He's become much more explicit about the stories," says Redden.

And, the French troupe Compagnie Herve Koubi explores the Algerian roots of its founder, Koubi, channeling the full force of 13 male dancers to merge Africa and European dance forms to riveting end. "He said he didn't know his grandfather is Arab," says Redden, explaining how the choreographer went out of his way to find dancers from that part of the world for the work.

Esperanza Spalding - SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Spoleto Festival USA
  • Esperanza Spalding

While theater may drive much of the festival, there is plenty afoot grounded in sound, including a smashing line up at Cistern Yard for Wells Fargo Jazz that includes jazz innovator Esperanza Spalding, a tribute to pianist Geri Allen, the Carla Bley Trio, as well as the bluegrass quintet the Punch Brothers and the folk-flavored I'm With Her.

The program also boasts the probing, peace-seeking Letter to a Friend in Gaza, a world premiere production by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, a Cannes film festival regular and arguably Israel's most prominent cinematic artist. A media mash up of film, music, and poetry, the work is informed by that of Albert Camus and features two Palestinian and two Israeli actors, with the purpose of finding that often-elusive common ground between them.

Curtis Harding - SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Spoleto Festival USA
  • Curtis Harding

All this tops off with Curtis Harding at the festival finale, now in its latest location at the picnic-friendly Riverfront Park in North Charleston that overlooks the Cooper River and brings on the soul — and the fireworks.

Of course, as a theater critic, I couldn't be more enthralled by this year's curatorial through line, particularly by the inclusion of such vast and varied applications that together emphasize storytelling as a means to make sense of our complex world. "All of these folk stories have a kernel of truth about the human psyche," observes Redden. With such rich material to mine, it is more than likely that those truths will be revealed.

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