This was my third time to the city, my second to Spoleto USA. This year, the trees of Charleston were what first grabbed my attention. These great ancient creatures with their long snake-like arms reach out and intertwine with other trees to form a sheltering canopy over certain parts of the old town.
This arboreal canopy seems an apt symbol for the festival itself. With renewed intent each year, General Director Nigel Redden works to connect with the town as place and interconnect one venue with another, artist to artist in conversation, and production team to team, stretching out the festival’s “branches” to penetrate ever more deeply throughout the town and point to future cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary possibilities of collaboration.
Mayor of Charleston Joseph P. Riley Jr. said in his remarks at the opening ceremony that, in its thirty-seven years, Spoleto USA has become “the most comprehensive arts festival in the world.” Judging by the program, I could well believe it. Leafing through the pages and seeing the people involved, it all spoke to a certain enviable civic pride in at least one part of the history of Charleston.
This year, Redden has added a garden tour, and what a delightful addition it turned out to be. (Nonetheless, it sent more than one woman packing back home to sob at her own hapless yard.)
With all this as a backdrop, nowhere else can folk put on a show as Spoleto USA. It’s as if the whole town colludes in costuming the pageantry. Women with big fancy hats and men with seersucker suits and wildly disconcerting bowties arrive at this ceremony, as most events, dressed if they’d been invited to the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Well, perhaps not the whole town. As in most well-endowed cultural centers of this country, here in Charleston I hardly espy one African-American person who is not a visiting artist in any audience. There were two local residents, who most conspicuously stood with signs on the edge of the proceedings of the Opening Ceremonies, protesting the gentrification and telling the festival audience effectively to get out of their town. Artistic as well as societal segregation remains a baffling and heartbreaking reality to artists and administrators who might wish it were not so.
Still, there are many other homegrown elements in the mix. The Piccolo Festival, with over 700 separate events in its “fringe” season, shared the stage with other mainstays of the season. Piccolo boasts many family shows, some free, and gives the festival a geographical breadth and varied richness it would not otherwise enjoy.
At the end of the charming ceremony in the square outside of the Town Hall, there was the sound of a cannon shot. Streamers and confetti shot out over the assembled throng, and the bells of St Michael’s Church peeled. The festival had officially begun.
With Spoleto in Charleston, part of the festival’s success is marked every few years by the opening of a new venue, the result of painstaking renovation of some dilapidated space in the city to become one more standout house for productions in the festival’s pantheon and beyond. Next on the list is a public-private partnership to rebuild The Gaillard as an opera house for an audience capacity of 1600-1800. It is scheduled to open January 2014 and promises to be a glorified gem in the festival’s crown.
Everywhere during the over two-week run of the Festival are serendipitous encounters. You can wander around the streets and stumble onto one dramatic “scene” after another. This year, painter Dabney, better known as “Dab,” seems to be standing on every street corner, and the secret is he moves around to further each of four canvases at different times of the day to capture the quality of light on the facades of the historic buildings. He proclaims his “revolutionary dabistic technique” and his paintings must be, we imagine, almost as talented as the character himself. His is a conjuring in oils that brings old columns and facades to animation.
Animation and conjuring of objects to life received a stunning re-interpretation of the Shakespearean classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I thought I knew this play having performed in at least four productions, directed one, and seen many more besides. But never have I ever seen anything quite like Tom Morris’ wild and bawdy collaboration with puppeteers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.
Morris was the genius behind and director of the hugely successful War Horse at Lincoln Center last year in another collaboration with the South African puppetry duo. Adrian, it is said, believes that every object has a life inside of it, and by this he means that a piece of wood cut down as a table or chair is still alive as the spirit of the tree it once was. Following their success with War Horse, the trio of creators designed a project that would in part be an exploration of that ideal.
With a cast of performers from the Bristol Old Vic, where Morris serves as Artistic Director, the group explored reinventing the theatrical narrative through a marriage of live performance and puppetry. In doing so, they may have broken every rule in the book.
With Midsummer, the company invited us in to help animate carved puppets, masks, and even simple everyday objects with our own imaginations. In this way, they engaged us in an unusually intense investment of ourselves, breaking open and entering into a magical world.
At the beginning of the show, we are inside an artist’s studio. A performer, Hippolyta, it turns out, is carving a mask. It might be intended for a ship’s prow, a piece such as might have been crafted in the port of Bristol to protect a ship out on its maiden voyage. We discover it also represents the face of a giant figure in a pair that will eventually adorn the entrance to her wedding festivities with Theseus.
What we learn in the course of the show is that spirits possess these objects –- and later others— to inhabit them and create mischief or perhaps to release the id in all of us and work out their and our darkest fantasies and fears.
The lovers of Athens, who in so many performances became interchangeable except for the high and low jokes between the two-sized women, engage us by another means, in what seems following their journey of growing into their true selves. They start out as puppets, well more like jointed stand-alone, stop-motion-animation figures. The four lovers act through these replicas of themselves, talk and move through them like children totally invested in their play. Sometimes they hide behind them, sometimes they carry them around like dolls for comfort, and in one touching love scene they exchange them.
It is only in the woods, in the famous, climactic Act III, Scene ii knock-down-drag-out fight that the actors finally abandon their small selves for good. Hermia (Akiya Henry) ends up abandoning her sweet-voiced amiability and goes for blood, and we scream for her success and freedom. The men, Kyle Lima and Alex Felton, who in this quartet have animated their diminutive models with particular skill, suddenly show themselves to be incredibly accomplished actors and comedians. I have never seen a more moving Demetrius in the thoughtful emotional life Lima focuses into his small doll then translates into his own full-sized, grown-up realizations and passion. He takes his time and mines the vulnerability of a young man who struggles to discover he has, as in a dream, risked everything he loves and needs.
David Ricardo Pearce and Saskia Portway double as Theseus /Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. We have seen such casting before, but never have I seen Oberon and Titania animated as giant floating masks. Pearce finds a way to make a papier maché hand with a trigger spring, bend, point, command and caress connect as one creature while acting within his own body as the Fairy King. His vocal and physical confidence carries us to believe in his most successful classically-styled interpretation. Portway’s characterization is rooted in realism, and she portrays an independent artist and new warrior woman. Thus, their gropings toward a royal union are understandably complicated as they represent indeed two worlds.
Nevertheless, the retinue of Titania’s fairies marks this Midsummer production. This “crew” creates a most startling and outstanding contribution, or, as its director would tell us, most “trippy” aspect of the production. A pair of fluttering fly swatters and an odd helmet create Moth. Cobweb is an odd pterodactyl puppet of mechanical parts. Mustardseed is a wide-mouthed, painted-and-scuffed clown, like something left out in the rain from an old-world fairground. He chortles insanely and represents a very naughty little guy who can only be appeased and then only briefly by being clamped at the teat of mother-figure Titania. As for Peaseblossom, well kissy-kissy though she is, let’s just say she is a very scary fairy indeed.
Finally, Puck is played not only by an assemblage of actors, but by an assembling and re-assembling of ordinary, unconnected objects that are given life. The process manages many magical transformations and manifests beautifully Puck’s true shape-shifting nature.
The clowns in the play, better known in the script as the “rude mechanicals,” remain Shakespeare’s original and eternally unsinkable success. Every one of the actors – Bottom(Miltos Yerolemou), Snug (Saikat Ahamed), Snout (David Emmings), Flute (Fionn Gill,) Peter Quince (Colin Michael Carmichael) and Starveling (Jon Trenchard) – is wonderful and unforgettable, Indeed, they work together most riotously to turn the play upside down and ass backwards in so many original ways. Let it be writ that Pyramus/Bottom went the farthest to expose the central joke in the play. Through Yerolemou’s generous sharing of himself, he made us have the time of our lives, howling with laughter, and generally and specifically made asses of us all.
The adage “never share a stage with dogs or small children,” might well caution about the occasional danger of mixing live actors with puppets. I did at times lose the rich passages of Shakespeare’s poetry so dazzled and spellbound was I by a painted block of wood that I had invested with my imagination and, having done so, could not let it go emotionally.
Still, the production cannot be seriously faulted, because the puppetry so enhanced the themes of magic and transformation in the play. Puppetry forms also reveal and heal the dreams and nightmares we must all work through before we can celebrate order of our individual relationships and place in our community. So it was in this production.
The other unforgettable and quite fantastical work in this festival was Matsukaze, an opera whose composer Toshio Hosokawa is Japanese, librettist Hannah Dübgen is German, director Chen Shi-Zheng is Chinese, and the two sopranos are Korean. Together with designers Chris Barreca (set), Scott Zielinksi (lighting), Elizabeth Caitlin Ward (costumes), and Olivier Roset (Video), they have wrought a most remarkable, seamlessly beautiful, and haunting work.
Based on a tale from the classical Japanese Noh tradition of theatre, the work draws its inspiration from many aspects of this rich tradition. It is one of the highest forms of Noh by playwright and theorist Zeami: a ghost story. Sung by two “ghost” sisters, it is their story, be it dream or real, told to an itinerant Buddhist monk, who spends his life walking to the ends of his country in order to pray for the living and the dead. Through their telling, the monk learns that once the sisters had made their simple living gathering salt on the shores of a Japanese island. A man had come and swept both off their feet, taking both as lovers, but then returned to his city, only to die unexpectedly, leaving broken promises and heartbreak. The sisters never got over him and moved through the next several hundred years as life-in-death figures.
Matsukaze’s story is imbedded in an atmospheric tone that is melancholic and connected with the nature and season of its setting. Autumn wind, rain, and a pine tree, feature highly in the texture of this peace. All of this is also most Noh-like.
But the treatment is imaginative and modern. The fisherman, who enters first, is dressed in a fantastic rain garb made out of what looks like blue plastic blinds. The pine tree that hangs as the major scenic element rising across the theatre’s dark “sky” is no ordinary pine tree from Noh or any other recognizable tree-form. Instead, its fluffy silver fronds and fantastical shape seems to have been born as an ocean creature, perhaps one of the more amazing seahorse figures, or like a hoary dragon. The music that evokes sounds from a Japanese theatre orchestra, including the wake-up wail of the shakuhachi flute and piercing percussive sound of the accelerating wooden clackers to announce entrances and climaxes, are warmed and enriched by long passages of sustained strings and other western orchestral elements.
The score is gorgeous. It felt to me like a memory of the ocean and long-lost longings that survives in each of us. Chorus and soloists pass fragments back and forth arriving together then separating in strange combinations of harmonies and textures.
Pureum Jo and Jihee Kim play the two sisters. Dressed in long white garments, which look like cobwebs and lace stitched together, they seem to be disintegrating further with every delicate gesture. The young women float across the stage like dancing sea foam which will get picked up by the wind and carried away at any moment. Likewise, both capture the strange, other-worldly vocal delicacy that Hosokawa has written for soprano and mezzo soprano. Their shimmering notes rise and fall, swirling together in harmonies as if joined in eddying tidal pools. Sometimes they cling to each other for strength to go on, at other times they seem to be engaged in a wrenching tug of war, as one wants to put down the love at last and escape their purgatorial existence, while the other still clings to the memory of love which is all she has left to define her.
Pureum Jo in the title role of Matsukaze, which means “Wind in the Pines” is given the dance-song climax of the piece as in many Noh plays, a radical transformation into madness, and in this she is positively radiant vocally and visually.
Gary Simpson as the Traveling Monk has found a rich and mesmerizing sound, a resonance that seems be colored by shifting overtones reminiscent of Japanese Buddhist chants or even Tibetan singing. His simple but strong gestures have captured well the grounded quality of a Buddhist practitioner. Thomas Meglioranza as the Fisherman captures with his contorted mouth and slightly a-tilt stance creates a character that is both empathetic and humorous at the same time. Both singers serve the opera well.
Kudos go to the entire company including Amanda Quist who oversaw the choral preparation of the Westminster Choir, a stalwart part of the festival. Here, as chorus, they pad softly around the shadowy periphery of the stage, swathed in black with semaphore white hand gestures. They add so much to the work in their stylized way of moving, the amplification of theme and emotion in their singing, and even adding incidental chime sounds that one might here along Asian mountain paths.
The mystery of the piece pervades long after one leaves the theatre. Images stick in the mind – a poetry of sound and movement. The projected eye that awakens in the ice house, the play of hands in midnight’s phosphorescent water, the tussle of the two sisters, the presence of the moon under whose spell the girls seem to fall – what did it all mean?
One should make the pilgrimage to Spoleto for this exquisite work alone. Good news for others, it will be seen next at Lincoln Center’s Festival. (July 18-20).
Part of the programming design at Spoleto is to offer a classical opera alongside one with more experimental intentions and flair. (One year a production of The Magic Flute was paired with Finnish composer’s Kaija Saariaho’s one-woman, multi-media opera” Émelie, which starred the soprano Elizabeth Futrall.)
In mounting any opera in a festival to warrant international buzz one must take artistic risks. And in taking such necessary risks, sometimes it is inevitable that one launches a scud dud.
To this reviewer, this year the dubious prize goes to the double bill of two short operas. For me, in any case, it was a painful evening where everything colluded to give the featured soprano the wrong kind of attention and support.
The first opera of the evening, Mese Mariano with music by Umberto Giordano, was quite flatly staged in front of a heavy curtain with one long wooden bench, which signaled that the opera was only a curtain raiser. Fair enough. The work, featuring a group of singing nuns, seemed programmed to give roles to several young women and solve the perennial issue of an overplanted crop of women singers coming up from local music schools. The opera began with a stream of spritely, squealing children, and it went downhill from there.
The choice to dust off Puccini’s early opera, Le Villi, written when the composer was only twenty-four, seemed an appropriate enough choice. Directors and designers often make a name for themselves and launch fantastic careers “on the circuit” by discovering and revitalizing a previously unproduced work from the operatic repertoire. The audience therefore processed in expectantly and filled up the house during the intermission.
It’s the work of a young composer. Let’s say it’s even a flawed work. Still, I could not tell why the creative team made their dubious choices so murky and unhelpful. Why would the costume designer put a plus-sized soprano in a shirtwaist dress that looked like upholstery material then stick her in toe-cleavaged yellow patent flats that threw the unfortunate singer’s weight backwards and made her repetitive lurches at the tenor not only flatfooted but painfully embarrassing.
And if this early sixties’ Barbie-doll world of superficiality and stereotyped flipped “dos” of the chorus, then why not use this as backstory for the lead who could never fit that mold, and might therefore feel lonely and desperate not to lose her all-too-handsome fiancé and so set up the idea perhaps of a pill-popping or martini-drinking descent into madness. I assure you, none of this was explored. No relationship with the tenor was satisfactorily established, and no moments directed to help connect the dots for the singer whose difficult emotional journey is the stuff of opera. But, as they would say in Charlestown “bless her heart.”
The baritone Livi Hernandez, who had wowed us with his “Star Spangled Banner”at the opening ceremony, gave the most dignified singing of the evening matched by a nuanced and believable characterization. But even he couldn’t save his daughter or the opera. Throughout the evening, tenor Dinyar Vania managed the seemingly impossible by going for it, melodrama and all, to be “chased to his death by the villi”, wraith-like female sprites. His powerful and expressive singing in his final scene was most affecting.
The greatest moment in the opera, however, and the one that first commanded spontaneous applause, was in the second scene when the choreographer Pierluigi Vanelli had reinterpreted the villi as women suffering from a series of hysterical maladies and sharing this living death with the lead Carmela in a mad house. Imagine Martha Graham’s company in Marat/Sade’s bedlam. Vanelli found an amazing movement vocabulary, and both dancers and singing chorus obliged him by exploring the horrific impulses of people gone mad: arching backs, batting and scratching at imaginary visions, the curled contractions of souls in withdrawal, and the compulsive leaps at the barred windows. It was a great sign that the dancers and the Westminster chorus are at such a high level that their two scenes were so brilliant. It’s a bad sign that the chorus stole the show.
Mayday Mayday. I was saved by the one-man show with just that title. It was a true story told by a man who fell, that man being actor Tristan Sturrock. Sturrock who devised this one-man show with wife Katy Carmichael, who directed the piece. It is part therapeutic healing perhaps (on his part) part cautionary tale (for our benefit.)
Actor Sturrock relates an event that happened to him in 2004, when on the eve of the most marvelous Cornish holiday, indeed springing from an old pagan tradition, he’d had a few too many pints at the pub and, walking back his windy path home up a steep embankment, falls off and breaks his neck. The experience of living inside a frozen body and his slow and frightening path back to wholeness is quite the miracle. But Sturrock deftly maneuvers the material, keeps his distance and his humor, and we are the more both entertained and moved.
With simple means and just a few props, Sturrock winds his way around the stage, reminding me of an adult in a form of Jungian therapy called sand tray work. He picks up a toy ambulance and helicopter, a bottle, a skull and skeleton, he pick through the detritus, as if finding whatever comes to hand to tell his story. All adds up to a lovely piece about the fragility of human existence and the power of love to go forward.
Such touching emotional journeys are the stuff of theatre and found in abundance in this year’s Spoleto. I was reminded that when artists play so closely together, even though coming from different performing traditions, things rub off. So it should not have surprised me that one of the most theatrical and moving experiences in Charleston came not in a conventional theatre performance but back at Dock Theatre, where I had gone to listen to one of the daily chamber music programs.
The Bank of America Chamber Music series offers programming almost daily at the festival. Geoff Nuttall is the Director of the Chamber Music, and a most apt one. I will comment on the theatrical aspects of the presentation rather than review the event as pure music.
Penned the Jon Stewart of Chamber Music by Jonathan Keller of The New York Times, Nutall does indeed seem to be part clown, part commentator, and entertainer in many ways. He does these roles so well, and seems so at ease in introducing the musical pieces, as if he has welcomed friends in his special house and is giving us his little private tour – which in fact he is. While I stood in the lobby of the theatre about to go in, he and other members of his quartet leaped out and greeted General Director Redden with an impromptu instrumental welcome, coming up and practically tickling his chin with the bows of violins. Even in performance the separation of serious musician and seriously responsive audience gets broken down. At one point, Nuttall calls up to the balcony where his son, six-year old Jack, right on cue screams down “Duck!”, the right answer to the joke about the evoked sound in a certain piece.
The quartet launches into its first piece, a romantic waltz by composer Joseph Lanner, and the four musicians practically took on characters that visually as well as musically cued us through the piece. Livia Sohn, the violinist, would lift her foot as if to skate circles around the others and did indeed seem to glide through dance steps. Nuttal used his expressive face to help paint the humorous passages and tempi. Even Anthony Manzo on double bass seemed to spice the work with the raising of ironic eyebrows, perhaps cast as the comic villain.
The next offering on the program swept me off my feet. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who at thirty won a MacArthur genius grant, was no stranger to me from a previous trip to Spoleto to see her. This time, she played a program with percussionist Stephen Schick, who had also commissioned the piece from Osvaldo Golijov in honor of the life of a friend. Schick introduced the work and assured the audience that although it was an “in memory” piece it wasn’t really very sad but rather a celebration of the man’s life. I was unprepared when not a few seconds into it I felt as if I had been plunged off a cliff into a canyon, where all my sorrows for all loved ones lost were lying in wait.
How can I describe Weilerstein’s playing? – her mastery of technique but also her expression told through an almost ecstatic channeling. It is like the experience of watching actress Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel, who as the sculptress Camille tears into and ravishes the clay in front of her. For people who think chamber music programs are too serious and quartets too staid and static, even for people who think they “don’t get” classical music, I dare you to sit through a program such as this and not be moved.
I left Spoleto wanting to remain through its seventeen days. I left with the pungent smells and visual tang of flowering jasmine and oleander. I left wanting to savor one more meal in restaurants with names like Fig, Leaf, and Carolina’s. I left ruminating and filled with sights and sounds to inspire me and remind me of the very best that theatre, opera, and music can do. I left promising I would come again.
The Spoleto Festival continues in Charleston, South Carolina through June 9, 2013. Here is the entire schedule.