Saturday, June 6, 2015

Spoleto overview: Water puppets make for a rowdy, splashy end to the festival

Golden Dragon puts on a spectacular show

Posted by Elizabeth Pandolfi on Sat, Jun 6, 2015 at 4:25 PM

Fire- and water-breathing dragons - COURTESY OF SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
  • Fire- and water-breathing dragons

I saw my last show of this festival (aside from tomorrow's Finale) this afternoon: the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Hailing from Vietnam, the puppeteers and musicians of this troupe are keeping a thousand-year-old tradition alive with their puppet performances, which take place in and on top of a huge water tank. 

Taking my expectations from the picture I'd seen — the same one all of you saw, in the Spoleto catalog — which showed a bevy of pretty female puppets skimming the water with their hands in some kind of dance, I sat down in the tent that houses Golden Dragon's watery stage and temple backdrop ready to spend a rather sedate hour. Instead, we were greeted by Golden Dragon's company manager, who told us a bit about the art form and to feel free to express ourselves, as audience members in the Vietnamese villages where water puppet shows were originally performed would often call out and exclaim during the shows. 

We took her up on that gladly, encouraged by the lively band. They played beautiful traditional music on traditional Vietnamese instruments as well as provided the dialogue (all in Vietnamese, but that didn't really matter. The only character whose words I really was curious about was the talking turtle. He intrigued me.) They also whooped and hollered during exciting scenes, like when two dragons burst onto the stage and breathe actual fire, or when a fox is chasing a furiously quacking duck, or heroes are rowing their boats through a storm (I think that's what was happening). 

All of this action makes for a lot of splashing, which, simple as it sounds, is a huge reason why the show keeps your attention. There's always something happening: someone's diving down under water, or a lion is jumping up out of the water, or a fisherman is slapping his net down on a fish, narrowly missing every time. It's funny in the most innocent, childlike way. 

When the puppeteers walked out into the waist-high water at the end to take their bows, we all stood and cheered like crazy. They, along with the musicians, put on a spectacular show — rowdy, loud, and highly entertaining. It didn't feel like watching a dead art form being kept alive for the sake of history, but like a vibrant form of theater that's still around because it's lots of fun to watch. This is rebirth all the way — although I would have to do a little research to see whether people have been performing these shows for 1,000 years, or whether this art form has been recently resurrected. If it never died in the first place, after all, then who needs rebirth? 

  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Spoleto overview: When it rains, people get naked (SPOILERS)

2b or not 2b

Posted by Elizabeth Pandolfi on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 5:04 PM

  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
Please note: This post contains spoilers. 

When It Rains
is the closest thing we get this festival to a regular old play, although this production by Canada's 2b Theatre is neither regular nor old. It's the story of two couples, Anna and Louis and Sybil and Alan, whose lives as individuals and couples fracture, fall apart, and in the case of one person, end completely. 

It's billed as a live action existential graphic novel, which sounds like the kind of thing theater companies say and then fail to live up to, because that's a hell of a specific and weighty description to satisfy.

In the case of When It Rains, however, that billing is completely accurate. The story is nothing if not existential, and the staging actually accomplishes the graphic novel look and feel, which is such a popular aesthetic and yet so hard to do right. The entire set, except for two plain office-type chairs, consists of projected shadow-like images — a dining room with a table, windows, and a fan, a bedroom, a small café, a park. There's a narrator who sounds like the iPhone's Siri, and who rattles off statistics and provides some short exposition on the characters at the beginning of the play. Text plays a large part in the staging as well, appearing on the plain black backdrop as stage direction, translation, and once as a significant piece of dramatic irony. Well, as significant as anything is in When It Rains' existential plot. 

Within that plot, two marriages crumble, a man ceases communicating with those around him and goes to live on the street, another man loses his job (probably), his child, and his wife, one woman loses her will to live and eventually dies, and the other searches for meaning that she never finds.

It's bleak, for sure, and also somewhat disconnected and baffling — until you put it in the existentialist context, which, frankly, I'd forgotten was a part of the play at all. Then you can stop wondering what the meaning of it all is (that's something they actually address, obliquely, in the play) and appreciate the sad absurdity. 
  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
That's not to say there is no meaning at all to the trials that Anna, Louis, Sybil, and Alan undergo. For example, one major theme in the play is the breakdown of communication. After Sybil and Alan's baby dies (we are told this in text on the background), Sybil ceases speaking. After Anna and Louis break up, Louis, a Frenchman, refuses to speak anything but French, which the people around him don't understand. He even speaks French from the stage, sometimes with a projected translation, sometimes without. Anna goes on a week-long silent retreat, although it doesn't seem to do much for her. ln fact, none of the characters seem to truly grow or change. Any time true connection seems about to happen, it's thwarted or backed away from.

It actually made me think of Albert Camus' famous existentialist novel The Stranger, which I read in high school on a whim with absolutely no context. Who knows whether there's an actual connection, but I had the same sort of disconnected, detached feeling watching When It Rains that I did reading that book.

There's also this idea of choosing misery over happiness; Alan brings it up with Louis, and at one point in the show, the stage direction seems to choose misery over happiness, too, typing out a happy ending, deleting it, and giving us a tragedy instead. 

I have to say that between the story and the staging, the staging is the reason to see this performance. It's really amazing how crisp and effective the projected set is — it gives the play a unique, stylized look that only feels gimmicky once, when Alan (played by co-creator Anthony Black) pours a projected wine bottle into a projected wine glass. 

Other than that, everything works. The bedroom scene, which has us looking down from above on the actors in their bed, is especially cool. Oh, and there is one scene of full frontal nudity, but it fits the plot and is pretty mild. 

It's a unique, interesting show, totally worth seeing. I'd say it's another win for Canadian theater at Spoleto. 

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Spoleto overview: nitty, gritty chamber music

Rockin' that Shostakovich

Posted by Elizabeth Pandolfi on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 2:47 PM

From an earlier chamber music performance featuring Huang Ruo, composer of Paradise Interrupted - COURTESY OF SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
  • From an earlier chamber music performance featuring Huang Ruo, composer of Paradise Interrupted
I'm ashamed to admit that it's taken me until the final weekend of the festival to hit up one of the twice-daily — and greatly beloved — chamber music concerts in the Dock Street Theatre, but, well, it did. This program, Program X, featured a set of three Elizabethan pieces, a French song cycle by Gabriel Fauré, Bach's Keyboard Concerto in F Minor, and Shostakovich's Two Pieces for String Octet, op. 11.

Geoff Nuttall, a co-founder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the emcee, as it were, for Spoleto's Chamber Music series, started us off with one of his characteristically informal, enthusiastic introductions to the program we were about to hear. The Elizabethan works and the Fauré were on the more restrained side — though the Fauré was also very romantic and evocative — while the Bach and the Shostakovich were "gnarly, gritty, and dirty," as Nuttall said. 

I don't remember whom I heard say this, but I know I've heard that Spoleto audiences are some of the most appreciative chamber music listeners that there are. That is largely due, of course, to the world-class musicians who come to play these concerts, but it's also thanks to Nuttall, whose humor and energy never seem to flag. He's always got a fun story or weird tidbit about the music to share. It keeps these concerts from being anything like the typical stuffy chamber performances that classical music fans often suffer through for the sake of being a supporter of the arts.

And the music was sublime. Especially the Shostakovich — quick, dark and, yes, gnarly, it's become a new favorite for me. If you think you don't like chamber music, I'd encourage you to try one of these shows before the festival is through. The final performances are at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. 

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Casus Circus offering masterclass for $20

Join the circus

Posted by Elizabeth Pandolfi on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 1:48 PM

  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
Casus Circus, the four-person troupe who's been flipping, balancing, and walking on eggs at Memminger Auditorium since Tuesday, is offering a you the chance to learn (a little bit of) what they do: they're offering a masterclass Sun. June 6 at 1 p.m. at Memminger. 

According to the troupe, you don't have to know anything about circus to attend and have fun. The skill level is "suitable for people with little to no circus experience, as well as people with a knowledge of gymnastics, yoga, and dance who would like to try something a little different."

You can sign up and buy your ticket on the Spoleto website.

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Spoleto overview: Radical fairy realness rituals

That's what happens at a Taylor Mac show

Posted by Elizabeth Pandolfi on Thu, Jun 4, 2015 at 11:19 PM

  • Julia Lynn Photography

Last night, as I said in an earlier post, I saw theater artist Taylor Mac (whose preferred gender pronoun is judy) perform judy's show A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music: Songs of the American Right.

I should begin by saying I was biased in Mac's favor before I even sat down in the theater, having interviewed judy a few weeks before for our Spoleto preview coverage. I'd never seen judy perform, but after reading about judy's work and speaking with judy, I've come to think judy's one of the most thoughtful and unique artists — and one of the ones most capable of moving people to reassess their assumptions — that I've ever encountered.

I still believe that after last night's hour-and-a-half long show, which I enjoyed from the moment a bedazzled, golden Mac appeared walking through the audience to climb up to the stage, to the last note of the encore which judy didn't even make us ask for (that was a lot funnier and less off-putting than it sounds).

This, and the other concerts which form a part of Mac's 24-Decade History of Popular Music, is a cabaret-style show which judy performs in what I suppose you would call drag, although I hesitate to use that word because it oversimplifies what's going on. This isn't a drag show; rather, it's a performance that use many drag show conventions to push a strong message and entertain you in the meantime.

The entertainment part was this: singing old and not-so-old conservative and liberal songs, including the Civil Rights song "Mississippi Goddamn," "Okie from Muskogee" — which included a "follow the bouncing boobs sing-a-long, with the boobs provided by local burlesque performer Evelyn DeVere — and religious songs like "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree." Of course, Mac appropriates them as judy's own, twisting the meaning or style in order to subvert the originals. Judy's persona throughout is drag queen all the way — funny, flamboyant, confident, pushy, and a little bit wacky, although judy does at various points slip into seriousness. 

  • Julia Lynn Photography
As for the message, in the broadest sense it's that we as human beings need more shared rituals in our lives so we can connect with each other and embrace ourselves fully. In this show, Songs of the American Right, the message is a bit more specific: we (even those of us who consider ourselves blazing liberals) are holding on to things from the past, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, that are preventing us from truly living in this present moment. Under the leadership of the glittery and glamorous Mac, we in the theater are meant to sacrifice and let go of those things by acknowledging them, deconstructing them, and reassembling them into something better so we can "dream the culture forward."

If all that sounds heady and not fun at all, I understand. Mac's work comes from a deeply philosophical place, although, as judy said in our interview, judy does always want judy's work to be entertaining. Because of that, this show was admittedly — as Paul Bowers, who wasn't crazy about the show, pointed out in his excellent review — didactic. Mac opened with a bit of a speech about why we were here, and how judy's job was "not to teach you anything, but to remind you of the things you've forgotten, dismissed, or buried, or that others have buried for you."

This premise worked for me. In fact, I was intrigued, in spite of and because of the dreaded audience participation I'd heard about. Mac likes to take people out of their comfort zones by forcing them to interact with strangers, and I can testify that yes, it's uncomfortable and awkward. But that is also the point. After all, what's so scary about another person? Why is physical contact with a stranger such a terrible thing? Shouldn't it actually be a wonderful, comforting thing, to be surrounded by other humans, and sharing something of yourself with them? 

That's the kind of fundamental reassessment Mac's performance can spark. And that can, if you let it, naturally lead you into reassessing other elements of your personal ideology. 

So yeah, I bought into the whole thing. I'm almost embarrassed to say how completely I bought into Mac's world — almost, but not quite. That's because I really believe that no matter how much you think you agree with judy's politics on gender, or race, or how much you pride yourself on your open-minded, progressive way of looking at the world, we all have little hypocrisies and cracks in our beliefs that need to be challenged if we're to continue growing as people. And that just doesn't happen much in regular life, unless you're a talk radio host or you have very outspoken family members.

Of course, the reason all this is bearable is because Mac is dishing it out using judy's drag persona. I'm not sure what it is about drag queens that gets people, most people at least, to loosen up and take a joke, but I'm certainly thinking about it after last night. I guess if someone's wearing sequins around their eyes and a glittery Statue of Liberty headdress, it's hard to feel all that self-conscious around them. 

And Gage, if you're reading this, I hope that was the case with you. You were a trooper, what with the boobs, and the hugging, and the hipster jokes. Rock on.

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