Troy Andrews, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty, is no Ketil Bjornstad. He’s a far cry from Toninho Ferraguti or Willy Gonzalez. Diane Reeves, Karryin Allyson, Danilo Rea, he is most definitely not. It’s arguable whether or not Mr. Shorty even belongs in Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz Series.
And for that we are thankful, because often it seems the seriousness of Spoleto jazz programming requires a stiff kick in the pants, and Trombone Shorty, with his band Orleans Avenue, was just the man to deliver this kick at the Cistern for his first of two programs there on Thursday night.
“Program” may in fact be the wrong word, as the experience was much more of a rock concert performance, despite that Spoleto organizers at first tried to maintain an ambiance in keeping with the seriousness of a capital-J Jazz program. It was clear from the start Shorty wanted none of that.
“I know y’all got seats and all out there, but don’t hold back!” he exclaimed on making his entrance, signature trombone held high over his head like a weapon of battle. “Cause we sure ain’t holding back.”
Shorty’s two-hour set of NoLa-infused bouillabaisse of rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop and soul was clearly the product of a man used to Lenny Kravitz-style gigs, with whom he has toured. The overwhelmingly young and middle-aged audience spilled out of the rows of plastic chairs and onto the Cistern lawn, milling about the two open bars, dancing near blankets to the sides.
Outside, the fence audience was as big as I’ve ever seen for a jazz concert there, with scores of people lined up along the wrought-iron bars peering in or squatting along St. Philip and George Streets, toes tapping. The crowd seemed to understand the nature of the event even before seeing it, as ticket-holders continued to stream in for 30 minutes after the show’s start, creating a party-like atmosphere that Shorty encouraged. Forty-five minutes into the set, he’d had enough of this sitting-down business: “Everybody out of your seats,” he shouted, jumping up and down. “I want to see you shake what your mama gave you.”
Across the street at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, Edgar Oliver’s East 10th Street brought the mood down a notch or ten. The house near the East Village's Tompkins Square Park where Oliver lived for years is surely an interesting place filled with zany, wacky characters, who make for fun anecdotes.
How many of us have lived next to a midget who keeps hundreds of coffee jars filled with his own excrement on shelves in his apartment? Or a building superintendent who tiptoes over the ghosts he sees lying prone in his foyer every night.
But that’s all there is to his monologue — descriptive portraits of admittedly weird people he knew, delivered in Oliver’s baroque bass monotone. It’s a voice that seem to have such potential, a bottomless Bela Lugosi canyon of a voice, but for some reason he seems to limit its range here to a just a sliver of its theatrical potential. Physically, he does the same, limiting himself to just three or four gestures for the entire show — fingers fluttering before him, arms outstretched like wings, slowly flapping.
What seems to be missing here is any sense of theatricality or, more importantly, insight into the human experience. Although it’s told from a first-person perspective, the monologue is is completely lacking in emotional content. Oliver is surely a very capable performer, but East 10th Street gives us nothing but amusingly eccentric sketches of Brooklyn oddballs. All of this might be interesting at a cocktail party or over an evening huddled around the bong, but beside such works as The Red Shoes, The Cripple of Inishmaan, County of Kings, even Taylor Mac’s sneering heartbreak, East 10th Street feels like a blank piece of paper, a story waiting to be told.
Near a café I like to visit in Saigon’s First District, I sometimes spot two Cambodian kids, brothers of about 6 and 8, who are performers of the old-school style. Dressed in garish, spangled, handmade costumes at once too big and too small, they specialize in the classic sideshow arts: fire-breathing, snake-swallowing, hot-coal-eating, and the like. All of it punctuated with standing backflips and other acrobatics, which performed on the side of a motorbike-packed street in Saigon is a death-defying act in itself. After a typical ten-minute sidewalk show, they walk through the seated café crowd soliciting tips. I’m always tempted to give them a big bill, something special for the effort, but I’m worried one of them will try to staple it to his forehead for an encore.
I was reminded of these boys last night at the Spoleto premiere for the Australian group Circa, which calls its physical style of performance art “a celebration of the expressive possibilities of the human body at its extremes.” Their show comprises its own category in the Spoleto program guide — “Circus Arts” — as it clearly defies easy categorization into any of the others, though it flirts with many. Acrobatics, theater, gymnastics, breakdancing, mime, freakshow, muscle-man contest, and yes, circus. One may as well include the cheerleading arts, for all the tossing, pitching, and catapulting the seven sculpted members of Circa do to each other.
The show, which has no listed name other than that of the group itself, runs through eight short scenes, all of them wordless, many of them performed to an eclectic selection of music — Cake, Sigur Rós, Nine Inch Nails, ambient techno, French café music, and what sounded like a Radiohead cover by Tori Amos. Often they took place in complete silence. These extraordinary scenes were linked by a narrative thread that suggested bodies that were not in the control of their owners, as if the eyes and minds of these actors were bolted on to automatons made of silly putty and steel which operate independently of their owners. Beneath this was a motif that surfaced repeatedly: the need for physical contact and touch, which all too often is unfulfilled or rejected.
The result was a marvel visually, intellectually, and theatrically. Circa excels at flashy acrobatics — three men standing atop each other’s shoulders, a girl spinning seven steel hoops, the seven artists hurling each other around the room like ragdolls. But they also make the most of small, carefully acted moments, as when one man, who looked as if he’d just walked off the cover of Men’s Fitness, used two fingers to narrative a wordless story, in total silence, of a man walking down his arm. It was how a father might perform for a child, if the father then went on to do a handstand on the two fingers.
In a canny scene near the show’s end, one of the men lay on the floor in a rectangular frame of light the size of a double bed. When a woman emerged onto the stage wearing a pair of stiletto-heeled red shoes, the audience gasped. We knew what was coming. On the same stage where Kneehigh Theatre’s Red Shoes become an instrument of torture and mutilation for their owner, another pair of red shoes were used to no less harrowing effect, but the result here was a nuanced metaphor for how we so often hurt the ones we love the most. We bend, we pull, we poke and throw and push and mangle, but they accept it, they keep coming back asking for more. As we all do. More please. Oh yes, more. More.
How did something as industry arcane as the ‘screen test’ come to be such a prominent part of Spoleto this year? Traditionally the stuff of DVD extras and YouTube’s dustier corners, screen tests feature prominently, even critically, in not one but two of this season’s big theatrical offerings.
In the Cripple of Inishmaan, the play’s eponymous main character is a sweet young Irishman whose physical disabilities lie somewhere on a line between Long John Silver and The Elephant Man. He pines for the affirmation and escape a successful screen test might bring, with just such a chance on offer by a film director briefly in town. At Emmett Robinson Theatre, indie musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips lay down 80 minutes worth of aural accompaniment to a baker’s dozen of Warhol’s screen tests, their subjects hovering over the on-stage proceedings like silver-toned specters, not unlike Charles Wadsworth at the Dock Street.
Have screen tests so completely entered the mainstream culture? Will western civilization next pull the curtain away from the mysterious doings of the best boy? Perhaps it’s a result of the mass videofication of modern life, in which every waking moment is a screen test, if not for a feature film then for the next viral clip. Fitting, as Warhol himself famously predicted that, in the future, we’d all be famous for 15 minutes. It didn’t work out so well for Crippled Billy in 1934, but who knows, today he might mount a challenge to David After Dentist.
What is known is that the Andy Warhol Museum, having in hand some 500 of Warhol’s 4-minute screen tests from 1964-66, commissioned Wareham and Phillips to write a soundtrack of sorts to 13 of this number, a collection that includes many of Warhol’s Factory chums: Edie Sedgwick, Paul America, Lou Reed, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar. The opening performance Wednesday night was far from the first time this gig has been presented, but it certainly had the ambiance of originality. The show was low on chatter and high on aesthetic, with Wareham or Phillips filling the short spaces between clips and dreamy pop songs with brief anecdotes about the test subjects, much of which sounds like it was scripted by Edward Gorey: W is for Freddy Herko who waltzed out a window.
In the audience were a mix of curious youths, local hipsters too cool to miss the one Spoleto event where the main artist drinks a beer on stage, and graying former fans of the counterculture and Velvet Underground. At the recorded pre-show announcement that cellphones should be turned off and any recording of this event was strictly prohibited, they all obediently and without irony turned off their phones. One suspects Warhol would not have submitted so easily.
If you ever want to sober up from an acid trip, Lemon Andersen recommends getting chewed out by your girlfriend's mother. If you're carrying a concealed gun and your trip is of the Papa Smurf variety, well, so much the better. Andersen knows this from personal experience, a story he relates in a narrative mashup of hip-hop-suffused rhythm, rhyme, and true crime neatly woven together with a physical performance that's equal parts modern dance, sashay, electric slide, and swagger.
At the Emmett Robinson Theatre for last night's premiere, Andersen — or Andy as he refers to himself in his lyrical 80-minute biography — inhabited not only his own youthful Puerto Rican self growing up in a fatherless Queens, N.Y. apartment with a heroin junkie mother who contracts HIV, but the whole neighborhood as well, which ultimately includes his pals at Rikers Island, where he was incarcerated for stealing cars and selling drugs. This cast includes his mother Millie, his car-stealing stepfather Charo, his one-eyed neighbor Miss Judy, Grandma Mammi, an instructor at Feld Ballet School, his girlfriend Lillie who loses her virginity to him (in a funny, poignantly rendered re-enactment), and at one point, God, who is revealed to be a spiteful, foul-mouthed Puerto Rican who delights in torturing His creations with fun little plagues like poverty, drugs, AIDS, and Chuck-E-Cheese.
Andersen flows around like stage like mercury, graceful as a cat, slipping into and out of characters from his life, his story a kinetic, balletic narrative that, line by lovingly crafted line, peels back the brittle external carapace of his youthful circumstances to reveal a very human heart, one that worships Andy Gibb as "the hippest white man in the world," and exults in Soul Train and American Bandstand.
It's hard not to make comparisons to hip-hop performance artist and character actor Danny Hoch, who was here in 2006. But Anderson's eye is focused inward rather than out upon the world, and his technique is more about poetry than portraiture.
Following his release from prison, Andersen happens on a poetry slam which hits him like a revelation: "All this rhythm and rhyme without a single breakbeat to use as an audible." Andersen's life here does have a soundtrack, which includes as much disco , Bee-Gees, and "Ring My Bell" as it does hip-hop, but the breakbeat is all his own.
Fans of experimental theater should check out the College of Charleston's Piccolo Spoleto play Bunker 13. Seattle company Wing-It Productions creates a completely unscripted improvised drama each night, partly based on audience suggestions.
Bunker 13 is a character-led, conversational, and ballsy show. Backstage after the show, I asked the group why they'd chosen to make life so hard on themselves.