Spoleto: Some patterns I've noticed at the festival

Cats: Philip Bimstein, the composer, wrote a piece called Cats in the Kitchen. It was performed during the Music in Time series. It calls for oboe and flute to play along with prepared soundtrack that featured the sound of cats meowing and purring. Meanwhile, Kassys, the Dutch theater collective, parodies in Good Cop Bad Cop the unreality of reality television by imitating cats (and one dog) on stage with projections of the same characters (as people) in video interviews behind them.

Stomping and Clapping: Todd Palmer, the clarinetist, arranged Aaron Copland "Hoedown" for flute, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano. The piece called for lots of stomping and clapping that raised the excitement level, especially when pianist Stephen Prutsman raised and thwapped his shoes to the floor in appropriately operatic fashion. Meanwhile, Noche Flamenca, the Spanish dance troupe, makes its living stomping and clapping. Those lie at the heart of flamenco, the people's dance.

Popping and Locking: Japanese dancer Hiroaki Umeda combined styles of street dance with light and sound technology to create an entire environment that either engaged you or didn't, depending on your sensibility, I think. Much of his dancing was of the popping and locking sort, but better -- elegant, seamless, and poetic. Meanwhile, the American premiere of Don John by Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre features a goofy tangent in which a schlubby, lovable and, in the end, courageous character by the name of Allen electrocutes himself twice (he's preparing for his wedding with the Polish beauty Zerlina; she's an 8 while he's more like a 3). With lightning in his veins, Allen proceeds to entertain the audience with a comic break-dancing sequence with his own version of popping and locking.

Dead people: Both fictional and real. Don John, the ultimate womanizer, meets his match when confronted by the dead father of one of the women he ravages. Actually, Don meets him in the middle of a drug-fueled psychosis and anyway, the point is that that's the end of Don John. Over at Story of a Rabbit, Hugh Hughes wraps the story of his dad dying into a story about a rabbit dying, and then all that into a story about the process of telling a story. It's all a lot funnier than it sounds. Meanwhile, the real dead people came into play with the 50th anniversary of Alvin Ailey's dance company. There was a video tribute to the American icon prior to the troupe's stellar performance in the beginning of the festival. Peter Lorre, the classic Hollywood actor, was revived for Addicted to Bad Ideas by the World/Inferno Friendship Society. Another real dead person coming to the fore was Gian Carlo Menotti. Mayor Joe Riley made a big deal about Charles Wadsworth, who's retiring this year, sticking with Charleston after Menotti, in a fit of rage over the role of his lover-son, pressured everyone involved in the American festival to defect to the Italian one. Tim Page, the overview critic for The Post and Courier, rightly noted that Menotti wasn't much good for anything in later years and probably did us a favor when he left.

Distractions: The pianist Stephen Prutsman has stopped playing at least three times due to noisy interruptions. Two of those were cell phones. To be fair, the other was just a squeaky chair, but to him, it must have sounded like a cell phone. Meanwhile, the opening of Dogugaeshi suffered from poor seating design. The festival built an ad-hoc black box at Exhibition Hall at the Gaillard and had set it up to be long and narrow, with the puppet theater at one of the narrow ends of the rectangle. That made it hard to see from the get-go. Moreover, the festival had also arranged two rows of chair per riser, each of which differed maybe by a couple of inches in height. Kindly ushers scrambled to find ways to help people see better, eventually coming on the idea of pillows to boast people up off their chairs. All has been remedied, I'm told. Then over at Beverly "Guitar" Watkins' blues concert, word has it her Telecaster took a shit that night, which explains why her performance was ungodly short. That and the sound guy never figured things out. The poor trombonist was blasting his brains out. Finally, Florin Niculescu's performance didn't get rained out thanks to quick thinking by festival organizers to move it to Charleston Music Hall. Unfortunately, if you were sitting on the orchestral level on the right side, you could hear everything over at Coast, too.

Video: It's getting rarer that the performing arts don't include video now. The Ailey company used it to pay tribute to its founder. Story of a Rabbit used video, as did the dancer Hiroaki Umeda, Addicted to Bad Ideas, Dogugaeshi, and Good Cop, Bad Cop. This counts under moving images but not video per se: Pianist Ramberto Ciammarughi did a recital that evoked the great Hollywood soundtracks featuring Hollywood's great but unheralded concert pianists.

Barnyard animals: I already mentioned cats and dogs, but there's more. Obviously, Story of a Rabbit counts. But so does Deuce Theatre's political satire The Emperor Is Naked? a fictional land peopled not with people but with "sheeple." Composer Philip Bimstein's piece called Garland Hersey's Cows uses various recorded sounds of cows doing cow things. You'd be surprised how cool-sounding harmonized moos are. Dogugaeshi features mostly beautiful slides to tell the story of the art form, but it also features a beautiful silver-maned, golden-toothed fox.

Trash: One of the "cats" in Good Cop Bad Cop gets stuck in a trash bag. It's hilarious and nearly worth the price of a ticket (nearly worth it; fortunately, there's much more). Meanwhile, a turning point in Don John occurs when one of his conquests, drunk and essentially out of her mind, finds a revolver in a trash bag. And finally, the last trash reference comes from a headliner writer for The Post and Courier who thought "'Don John,' brash; 'Rabbit' trash" would be clever atop mixed reviews of both Don John and Story of a Rabbit by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page. There's a special place in Hell for headliner writers like that.

Untethered writers: 2008-2009 has been brutal to media people who covered Spoleto for years and years. I have met journalists and critics who used to represent venerable newspapers like The Post and Courier, The State in Columbia, and the Charlotte Observer, but who are now flying solo. If you Google "Spoleto Festival USA" in the news section, you'll find mostly articles in The Post and Courier (done by stringers, mostly) and City Paper (which were also written by freelancers, but not mostly). The times they are a-changing.

Originally published in Charleston City Paper

June 8, 2009 4:21 PM |

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