Some of the best of Spoleto comes happenstance and often spills out onto the streets. So don’t let the size of your wallet dictate whether you can take part in the joyful exuberance of the Spoleto Festival, which runs through June 10, 2018. There are plenty of free or mostly free concerts, including jazz and early music. Even wandering along a street in Charleston’s old town, you might just catch a headline singer vocally warming up or rub elbows with a playwright or world-class dancer at a bar.
One night, after a most unfortunate show, we felt the need to cleanse our palette and walked into Tommy Condon’s Irish pub. We ordered our palliative whiskeys and listened to two regular musicians who make up the Bog Rats. Singer Christian Carroll can make a fiddle talk blarney and he has a strong compelling voice while guitarist Dave Barry delivers great licks. They gave us one original up-tempo song which made me want to run out and buy a CD. But something that served as salve, they delivered an unpretentious welcome to everyone who came through the door to sit down and have a bit of fun – even at their expense! (What a difference attitude makes, and how important it is for artists to invite people to share in understanding their intentions and joyful “art-making.”)
Another delightful musical encounter was over brunch at Prohibition where Robert Lewis, Artistic Director of Charleston College’s jazz program produced some sweet riffs on the saxophone with fellow CC teacher on keyboards, and where he announced a whole series of parallel jazz programs going on during the festival – all free.
On the other hand, if you want to feel part of the upscale Spoleto culture, you can head on down to Dock Street Theatre for the Bank of America’s annual Chamber Music Series. They offer eleven programs, each repeated three times during the festival. MC’d by director Geoff Nuttall, a dead ringer for Lyle Lovett, the man is filled with some brand of musical helium, and his invitation to share in his passion for and unequivocal joy at live music performance is infectious.
2018 Spoleto Festival USA
closes June 10, 2018
Details and tickets
Sinking into my seat and surrounded by the warm wood of the beautiful, painstakingly restored Dock Theatre, I felt I had come home. Being welcomed by Geoff as family and hearing a morning concert of impeccable musicianship by the “house band,” the St. Lawrence String Quartet and his assembled guest artists, well it’s better than a facelift. I dare anyone not to feel uplifted and restored.
Program #2 led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K 414 featuring the extraordinarily gifted Mozart interpreter Pedja Muzijevic on piano. Instead of a full orchestra, we were treated to a quattro rendition played by the St. Lawrence Quartet plus bassist Doug Balliett, because, as Geoff so persuasively and succinctly argued, “Everything sounds better with a bass.” Hearing Balliett’s warm tones, played with a curious bow, a replica of one heard in Mozart’s time, brought depth and complex balance to the piece like a grand cru. Especially winning was the way that Muzijevic and the string players produced fresh timing and phrasing, teasingly playing with their and our heads.
This was followed by two Handel arias by sung by counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who has joined the group for other Spoleto sightings. Joining forces with Geoff’s quartet was the JACK Quartet and Muzijevic playing harpsichord.
Costanzo’s introductory remarks are totally in sync with the spirit of Geoff and Co, both informative and often off-the-cuff silly. Comparing the preparation for the medical procedure performed historically on castrati with Charleston’s classic cotillion prep of the young ladies (both involved milkbaths) raised eyebrows and launched the audience and the other musicians into paroxysms of laughter.
There was nothing “silly” about Costanzo’s vocally sending out the long lines of Handel’s arias for counter tenor. Well, perhaps he did use his body to coil and uncurl his spine, snakelike, to create the fast Handelian ornamentation with, as Geoff pointed out, something that resembled Golden State Warrior Steve Curry’s shimmy. There was a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.
“Gawain’s Journey,” a newly commissioned work by bassist Doug Balliett, was served up as the final piece on the chamber music program. I felt so lucky to have stumbled into hearing this world premiere.
It was the second part of a work of contemporary experimentation for sure, but once again I marveled at how the creative artist shared insights to help the audience enter his process. He not only spoke simply and passionately about his own inspiration for the work, but provided the packed auditorium with a series of surtitles which enabled everyone to hear and follow his textures and thematic material.
Balliett also treated us to a taste of his first section, which used a fast rhythmic patter to introduce a bard character, straight from the medieval oral-tradition, but contemporized into a rap. Move over Lin Manuel Miranda. Your phenomenon has ignited the world and paved the way for new music-theatre makers.
The classical tale of one of the Arthurian knights, trying to locate his nemesis, The Green Knight, became a metaphoric journey of one exiled to new strange lands, combating fearsome creatures and confronting one’s own terrors. Brilliant. If the second section is indication for what is yet to come, it promises to be a tale-worth-telling opera.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
The most exquisite and delightful theatrical piece of the entire festival came from the imaginative, multi-disciplinary work of Kneehigh and its collaborating partner, the Bristol Old Vic. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk tells the tale of two people, Marc and Bella Chagall. Exiled multiple times and wandering through the war-torn fields of twentieth-century western civilization, they survive on love and the ability to float in a parallel existence above the century’s worst atrocities, recording through their painting (Marc) and Yiddish journals (Bella) memories of vanishing family, Jewish culture, and their dreams.
The show is a reincarnation of a twenty-five year old work by its two creators, director Emma Rice and writer Daniel Jamieson, who also played the original couple. The work, reminisced Rice, is of a couple in love exploring and presenting another couple in love.
Serving as the newly-minted embodiment of the Chagalls are the very talented Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood. The first thing that hits you about this work, as other works by Kneehigh, is the sheer buoyant theatricality. Antolin (Marc) in white face with delicately arched brows and a riot of dark curls conjures up a mime or a silent screen star such as Buster Keaton. Maywood, with her fringed hair, gamine face and radiant smile, seems like a throwback to an old wholesome musical star, and she delivers, singing like a dream.
Kneehigh’s roots are based in the style of training of Poland’s Gardzienice Theatre that combines ritual, a capella “drone singing” steeped in the rich tradition of eastern European harmonics, mime, dance, and physical theatre. These two performers move effortlessly through these disciplines, all the while taking on and discarding multiple characters with the aid of a simple prop to tell the Chagall’s story.
The performance is aided immeasurably by musicians James Gow and Ian Ross, who not only support the action with a variety of instruments, they jump into singing parts and even act as stage managers and support characters as needed. It all takes place on a flimsy yet magical stage world by designer Sophia Clist, featuring wood scaffolding that conjures a whimsical tree house.
The show is also a memory of a memory and a poignant one. Not only do we see the valiant struggle of this artistic couple to start life over repeatedly as immigrants forced like pawns between Russia and Paris while the map of Europe is drawn and redrawn, we also get a glimpse of its creators who no longer carry the same ideals and dreams. There is a wry and wincing realization that this is also a story about an artist who could never grow up and the woman who because of her love for him could never fully realize herself.
The show is at other times full of invention and humor. Anyone who has seen and loved Chagall’s canvases will recognize the green cow, the red cockerel, and the blue fish. Near the beginning, there is also a most telling phone call interruptus from a man and art critic (Chagall’s son-in-law?) pontificating about buried themes and symbolism in the artist’s work, during which Chagall, bored and mystified by all the chattering nonsense, keeps putting down the phone.
Most of all the work is full of flying, flying, flying. The actors rarely appear vertical. Now they are hanging off ropes and swinging their bodies out into space. Now they are prone, bicycling their legs. They support each other, taking turns, lifting the other in space. They convinced me this is what love is: two people, each helping the other fly.
Strong Women’s Roles at Spoleto and the Plays of Henry Naylor
Another theme that is sounded in this Spoleto Festival is about unleashing the voices of strong women. Works from different art forms begin to connect in the mind.
Balanchine who loved women and brought them in close as muses and often wives, bequeathed us a ballet at this Spoleto all about unleashing the wild woman and allowing them ecstatic self-expression. That was gorgeously played out when the Miami City Ballet dancers ran onto the stage, their hair down and streaming in “Walpurgisnacht Ballet.”
How smartly director Cigni brought out a focus on strong women in Donizetti’s classic opera Pia de’ Tolomei and how fully realized this idea was made in the performances by Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Vera Savage, and Amanda Woodbury.
Velasco brought new meaning to the classic “pants role” She made me believe her character was woman forced into living as a man because of dangerous times. Her Rodrigo felt physically so planted, a resistance fighter of the first order and a woman not afraid to join the men and use a gun in a just cause. (She made me think of Avital Lvova’s performance a year ago at the festival in the show Angel about a Syrian sniper.)
Vera Savage dominated the stage, more an Executive Director than a serving woman. In one scene she steers other hatted women in a coffee klatch as if using the gathering to launch a political campaign. Later, she stands up to male power run rampant and courageously prevents the mayor from running through his wife with a knife.
Coloratura Woodbury revealed a different kind of strength, with her most compelling portrayal of Pia, a woman of uncompromised moral worth. She traverses the dangerous societal times, always ready to make the difficult choice. In Cigni’s theatrical conception, she risks her life to save art treasures and stows them underground (as so many women did in WWII, and though their stories are mostly unsung, many risked their lives defying the political leaders of hate.) But Pia’s greatest strength comes when she draws on reserves of love, compassion, and forgiveness even as she faces death.
Henry Naylor brought a new feminist hero to Spoleto Festival this year with his play Borders. He continues to mine stories from the Middle East, that now extends beyond his trilogy Arabian Nightmares, that included the powerful Angel with The Collector and Echoes. In fact this former stand-up comedian turned very unfunny indeed to dedicate his lifework giving dramatic voice to the victims not only of war but of the West’s not listening and not getting things right.
Borders is about Syrian refugees, wrapped up in the dramatically-created character of Nameless. The name clearly flags the work as an allegory, suggesting the character is a composite of stories by and about several women refugees interviewed, women who everyday are put in danger and denied the right even to tell their own stories.
Avital Lvova, herself a refugee from Latvia, has done enough serious research and listening to Syrian women, that she channels the brusque, unsentimental strength of these women who have pushed down all feelings in order to survive. Her vocal delivery for instance cuts through the air in a volley of words at top speed and almost always launched on the same pitch. It can feel unrelenting but intentionally so. There’s a part of Nameless that is already long dead.
Her physical work is also powerfully drawn from keenly observing women who have to live on the street. She pulls her hoody down, stuffs her hands in her pockets, and strides around like a man. When confronted, she apes the rough male gestures of “gansgsta” graffiti artists. She can go emotionally from a 1 to 10 in a second, then suddenly she slinks into the darkness and disappears, a ghost.
Unlike the one-woman show Angel, Naylor’s introduces a second character in this play, a British photojournalist. It’s a brilliant addition because we enter the play through his lens, most of us more familiar with his community and emotional landscape. Through him we witness not just the war and victims of war but we also are forced to confront ourselves and all our delusions, weakness, distractions, greedy impulses and moral relativity.
Graham O’Mara plays the rather complicated photojournalist who may be quite naïve when we first meet him but he isn’t a beast. He’s hungry and he wants not just a job but to make his mark. Naylor captures that universal longing just right. By chance, being in the right place, he lands the opportunity to shoot an interview with Bin Laden. Turns out it’s a boring gig, but it makes his career. It lands him well-paid gigs with celebrities like Brittany Spears and Angelina Jolie.
The topical pop references amuse but will probably shorten the shelf life of Naylor’s Borders.
On the other hand, there is a great deal of serious provocation. Are we meant to think that all journalists are manipulated whores? I think rather Naylor challenges us to understand and value the importance of a free and responsible press. There is a great deal at stake.
There is another journalist in the play referred to and given voice at times by O’Mara. If O’Mara’s young photojournalist succumbs to greed and being a media darling, then John Messenger (I told you it was an allegory) succumbs to his own form of darkness. As real journalism is shown abandoned for fake news and on-line voices of vapidity, Messenger become side-lined “decommissioned,” and put out to pasture. He grows cynical, angry and succumbs to alcoholism, raving like a fool in the middle of an opening cocktail soiree. It’s all a bit embarrassing and very sad.
At its best, Naylor’s writing has a kind of poetic even musical structure. There’s the repeated motif of woodlice, conjuring multiple images in the play. These moments amplify the work and break the kind of journalistic “and then… he-says-she-says.”
Naylor has developed a particular journalistic style for these plays, a kind of direct address “just the facts ma’am.” And the facts build up as we listen to voices from two worlds like a split TV screen. Only in the very last moment is there the possibility that our two characters coming face to face present a choice to be made.
The choice, as it turns out, is ours. Are we meant to take responsibility to demand real news, to support a free press, to educate ourselves, and to aid our fellow humans?
Naylor seems to have taken the mantle of writers like Athol Fugard: to make theater by telling the stories that matter. And he has proven again he can create a strong woman at the center – a voice we can’t forget.
Running Time of Bank of America Chamber Music Program: 1 hour 15 minutes
Running Time of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk: 1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Running Time of Borders: 1 hour 15 minutes without an intermission