A Smorgasbord for the Senses 

Greek gods, Geoff Nuttall, and Gallim Dance get Spoleto going

I've gotten used to leaving home a little early to find a parking space before a Spoleto show. But this year, I've had to leave earlier than ever. Downtown is thick with pedestrians, and practically every event I've been to has been filled to capacity. This is a great sign for the festival's continued success. It's also a feather in the cap of Spoleto attendees, who seem willing to try anything.

There's plenty to sample this year: contemporary classical music, drag ballet, chamber music, religious theater, lewd comedy, unusual visual art. It's exactly what an arts festival should be, a smorgasbord for the senses.

Headliner opera Flora was a treat for lovers of 18th century music. With support from members of the Westminster Choir, singers Andriana Chuchman, Tyler Duncan, and Robert McPherson made a particular impact in the lead roles of Flora, Tom Friendly, and Hob. The opera's biggest flaw was its thin plot; in order to sustain it for two hours, songs were added and characters prevaricated. But that also left room for the heroine to ask an interesting question: What happens after a happy wedding? Will Prince Charming start spending all his time down at the pub or run away with some wicked witch? In Flora, love conquers all, but with a don't-get-caught sub-clause.

Carlo Colla and Sons returned with the marionette opera Philemon and Baucis. Like Flora, it makes a short story long, but it only lasts one hour. Using some delightful themes by Franz Joseph Haydn, the opera tells the story of an old couple who are visited by the gods Jupiter and Mercury (the Roman equivalents of Zeus and Hermes). This enables the company to show a whole pantheon of mythical gods and monsters, including a cameo from a three-headed hydra. It's like Clash of the Titans, but with less wooden acting.

At $50 for an hour's worth of entertainment, this opera is by no means child's play. A huge amount of diligence goes into making the marionettes move. It's amazing to see the sheer number of operators — 12 in all — kneeling on stage at the end to take a wee bow.

Proserpina lacks the set dressings of Flora. It takes place in a grim gray room with an imposing wooden ceiling, and all the action revolves around the title character. The production is really a showcase for soprano Heather Buck, who keeps the audience enthralled for an hour and 20 minutes straight. Wolfgang Rihm's contemporary music takes her voice all over the place, her powerful high notes representing a married woman's desperation to escape her oppressive home life. She's backed by a choir of creepy young Fates — also members of the Westminster Choir — who sing haunting notes that are at times reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's Omen score.

After the American premiere of Proserpina at Spoleto, the audience was divided. Some loved Rihm's unexpected tonal patterns; others wanted some more traditional tunes to latch onto. One patron felt that "each musician was playing a different tune, all at once." Likewise, everyone involved in the opera pronounces the title differently. I'm reliably informed that the emphasis should be on the second syllable.

Conductor John Kennedy warned his audience that they were in for a rough ride when he hosted different examples of Rihm's work in the Music in Time opener. This series focuses on modern classical music, in this instance played by an ensemble from the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. According to Kennedy, Rihm has been heralded as the most important composer working in Germany today. Like Beethoven, he transforms rhythmic energy into an extraordinary breadth of music. His Chiffre-Zyklus juxtaposes ambient sound with frenzied piano playing and street-life sonic experiments, suggesting feelings rather than formal tunes. As Kennedy cautioned, we did get rocked by Rihm. But the rough ride was a worthwhile one, not least because of Lydia Brown's intense piano solos.

For more accessible — if no less exhilarating — classical music, Spoletians packed the Dock Street for the first Chamber Music concert, led by new Director Geoff Nuttall. He gave them just enough that was familiar (such as Johann Pachelbel's Canon in G) to ease them into less well-known material (Robert Schumann's Fairy Tales). The chamber concerts are visual as well as aural treats; Pedja Muzijevic hunched over his piano keyboard, Christopher Costanza curved his body around his cello like he was a part of the instrument, and Nuttall bounced up and down on his chair as if he was driving a speeding roadster down Chalmers Street. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Also at the Dock Street, Gate Theatre showed an innate understanding of Noël Coward's humor in their production of Present Laughter. That humor was very gentle, but if droll jokes — like "What's she doing with her coffee and orange juice?", "Drinking it, probably," — rattle your funny bones, this is a must-see play.

I watched Present Laughter over a sea of gray heads. This aged audience certainly empathized with Stephen Brennan's spot-on portrayal of a man holding onto the last vestiges of his middle age. Without Brennan's vim and commitment, the play would be much less Cowardly.

It's quite an accomplishment to pack the Gaillard for a cross-dressing ballet act. The auditorium has such a gentle slope that the people in front of you obscure your line of sight — one guy stuck behind a tall, heavy-haired lady gave up and left after the first interval. He missed some amazing ballet moves and lots of funny sight gags performed by the men of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. With their hairy chests and sweaty backs, the dancers may have looked like boxers, but they floated like butterflies. They managed to cover an array of different ballet styles, from classic Swan Lake fluttering to post-modern movement in "Patterns in Space." A duo used everyday objects as musical instruments, lampooning the serious experiments of events like Music in Time. Robert Kennedy should check it out.

Gallim Dance's I Can See Myself in Your Pupil approached modern dance from a more technical perspective, but it was still lots of fun. In one moment, the performers jumped up and down in the dark for a while before the lights came up, giving the sense that they were dancing for the sheer enjoyment of it, not just for the audience. They used exquisite timing to express their own emotions and moved as individuals while still working together as a cohesive group. They mirrored the hustle and bustle of life in their native New York City and put across the contrary complexities of a new relationship between a man and a woman. It didn't hurt that the performers were young, attractive, and, at times, scantily clad. One section with two men in their underpants satisfied an essential dance requirement by showing their bulging packages to the audience. It was the one time during the show that I wouldn't have minded sitting farther back from the action.

Piccolo Spoleto also has some noteworthy shows to see. In Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) at the Chapel Theatre, College of Charleston student George Metropolis tackles tricky, soul-searching material in order to get the audience thinking about their lives and their roles in the society around them. The fact that this made people nervous and uncomfortable was a plus, since that's the author's intention. Over at the Footlights, 34West Theater Company performed a sweet version of the biblical Book of Ruth. Set in the '40s, My Name is Ruth has the feel, if not the predictability, of a black-and-white sitcom. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by the acting and simple message.

Ruth doesn't push its religious angle like Mahalia: A Gospel Musical by local company Art Forms and Theatre Concepts. This is a jukebox musical celebrating the life of Mahalia Jackson, who rose from humble beginnings singing in her local church to become a recording star and civil rights icon. For its opening performance, lead actress (and incredible singer) Sheri McClain-Brown performed non-stop for almost two and a half hours, praising the lord and getting the audience's feet tapping with songs like "Jim Crow Blues" and "We Shall Overcome." For the converted, it was a great celebration of the musical form and the African-American experience of the 20th century. Keith Alston gave a mean Martin Luther King impression, and the only big flaw was the microphones' crackle and hum. Apparently, Satan himself messed with the sound all the way through the show.

So far, Present Laughter has been the best-executed show I've seen, closely followed by the Trocks. The Music in Time and Chamber Music concerts also lived up to their high reputation. In the best events, the performers are obviously having as much fun as the audience. I'm looking forward to Block Ice and Propane by cellist Erik Friedlander to see how he plays and improvises as the mood takes him. Bunker 13, part of the Stelle Di Domani series, also sounds intriguing. Based on letters to fictional soldiers written by the audience, the play is completely improvised.

Performing for pleasure, improvising, going with their gut — this is the kind of thing that will keep the festival fresh and exciting.

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