Sometimes the best of the “best in art” sneaks up on you. So it was with Spoleto Festival USA’s 2016 season. Maybe this year it had to do with the fanfare around the Festival’s “made-for-Charleston” production of Porgy and Bess. Or perhaps the contemporary opera with silhouette puppets of Helmut Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl drew such a loud and controversial response that it was hard to hear other things above the din. But there were two events that were featured in the Festival’s first weekend that deserved more than “honorable mention.”
The first, Ada/Ava, like Lachenmann’s work, features live performance and puppetry, and specifically the use of silhouette cut-outs to tell its story. Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based multi-media ensemble, is new to the scene and made its debut at Spoleto with this production. The young group’s attention to detail and technical prowess delivered what Lachenmann’s production, in terms of its visual use of puppetry, could not.
Seeing the set up prior to the performance – a few rickety tables and four outdated overhead projectors, the kind that made classroom lessons for both teachers and their students a snore, I was completely unprepared for the stunning work that the group conceived and presented.
The production won me over completely, not the least because of the generation’s re-purposing of theatrical means and a kind of anti-technology approach to mixed-media theatre as silent story telling.
The eight-member ensemble showed extraordinary finesse while at the same time taking a humble, “anonymous” approach to delivering a piece of theatre. At the top of the show, three actresses in full view of the audience put on masks comprised of a silhouette “strip” to transform their profiles into old women. They proceed to share “live” the creation of two characters, sisters Ada and Ava, played mostly by Julia Miller and Lizi Breit, along with help from their colleagues, through projected close-ups of hands and other details of the selfsame characters. There are also two musicians, Kyle Vegter on cello and Eric Streichert on guitar, as well as a sound engineer, Maren Celest, on stage who doubles as a jazz chanteuse. Celest makes her voice like Billie Holiday, so much so, I thought, through the first number or two, I was listening to an old tape before realizing the woman was performing live as if she were singing on radio.
I had never seen (or heard) anything quite like the show.
The premise was quite simple. Two elderly sisters, living together go through their daily rituals of having tea, playing chess, and cleaning and caring for a lighthouse lamp. A bad storm occurs, requiring great fortitude on their parts to make sure the lighthouse stays lit. The death of one of the sisters creates such unbearable loneliness, that the remaining sister wills or imagines Ava back. But her return is fraught with scary consequences.
In the hands of these remarkable and very disciplined artists, led by founders Drew Dir and Sarah Fornace, the story comes alive in the most magical of ways.
Perhaps what is most remarkable is that they demonstrate all their “means” in front of the audience as if to debunk the magic they are creating. The actresses walk across in front of a screen and projected above they appear on a larger screen in silhouette. They then drop down and crawl on all fours back to where they make their next entrance in full view of the audience. All the puppeteers, including the actresses in the named parts, take turns doing whatever is necessary: flipping a cover on one of the four light sources, changing overhead “slides,” or flashing a single “prop” on the overhead surface to project some aspect of the story. They were unfailingly accurate with the tricky timing and organization of their presentation, and their discarded “slides” piled up behind them.
But like all great puppetry, at some point – for me it was about ten minutes into the show – I stopped looking at the workings and sat entranced, absorbed by the magical “reality” of the shadows being created on the screen above. I was transported back to my childhood in Java where I would watch the shadowy world of the wajang kulit (two dimensional leather shadow puppets) that moved me into a metaphysical world of smoke and spirit.
The ensemble of Manual Cinema has found a new “old” means of performance-making, and without a single world being spoken, communicate directly and movingly a powerful emotional experience. While Manual Cinema’s Ada/Ava has concluded at Spoleto, it can be seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, starting August 3.
The second group is one whose lack of presence as regulars at Spoleto would be unthinkable. The Bank of America Chamber Music series serves up eleven different programs during the two-weeks’ celebration and is an anchor group of the Festival. Many people follow this group and attend the concerts at Dock Street Theatre with devotion.
It has a lot to do with its Artistic Director of several seasons, Geoff Nuttall. Besides being an accomplished violinist, he is a keen programmer and a terrific entertainer. He may also be the nattiest dresser on the Spoleto circuit.
It felt I was coming home when I took my seat at the Dock Street Theatre. There was the chamber music curtain, designed and painted by Christian Thee, with its painting of the old Charleston harbor with a glowing moon above in a trompe l’oeil gold frame with its putti, those four little cherubs lolling and painted leaning forward as if looking down with interest on the musicians below.
Spoleto Festival USA
Charleston, South Carolina
May 27 – June 12, 2016
Music performances continue
throughout the festival
Details and tickets
I learn so much from these concerts, not just about the music, for Nuttall assembles some extraordinarily gifted musicians, but also about theatre. Nuttall and company are very good about the way they listen and play with each other on stage, and he most especially has an excellent rapport chatting up his audience. I’ve found my own work in theatre deepened by crossing into another art form, and that is part of what Spoleto is all about.
“The Kreutzer Sonata,” for instance, by Leoš Janácek, a piece of music based on a Tolstoy story of the same name, which was itself inspired by Beethoven’s sonata, carries a whole dramatic through line. Nuttall and the other musicians in the St. Lawrence String Quartet take us through the emotional experience of the story of a deadly triangle.
Another highlight for me was hearing – and watching – Livia Sohn play Ravel’s “Tzigane,” a gypsy piece if there ever was one. To follow how this petite woman “tears up” the violin and bring all the colors and intensity of passion is thrilling.
Anthony Roth Costanzo was featured on both programs. This young man sings countertenor and is a star in that rarefied performance field. Hearing his rendition of “Summertime” connected the dots between so much of what was happening this season around Porgy and Bess. His interpretation was delivered strongly, with some wild technical trills and dare-devil attitude.
But the highlight came in Program III where Costanzo performed “Tenebrae,” a new piece by Osvaldo Golijov, with Todd Palmer on clarinet and the St Lawrence String Quartet. Golijov was present and told a story – a piece of theatre in itself – about being inspired to write the work based on the story of four orthodox Fathers at a Church in Jerusalem who, coming from four different religious and cultural traditions, retreated to four corners of the Church’s courtyard. They had so little trust for each other they needed an outside family from the city to be responsible for the key to open and lock up the Church and courtyard every day. If they, as holy Fathers, can’t find an amicable peace to live together, what is possible for the rest of the world, the composer mused. This was the inspiration for his piece.
And then this sound. Costanzo became an instrument, and the entire group played so softly and sustained such long melodic lines, it was breathtaking. It felt indeed as if we were all floating through space or as if we had come upon a spider’s web sparkling with dew in the early morning and went for a ride, following its gossamer thread. Costanzo’s voice was transformed – instead of pushing out a song, which is what we heard in the equivalent of a countertenor’s “belting” of standards, this piece drew people in so that it felt delicately and beautifully fragile. We had to breathe with him. As a performer, one dreams of lifting an audience and transporting people into that kind of emotional suspension.
And that is the very best art can do.