Somewhere in the middle of last week — let's call it Friday — Charleston quietly passed a milestone. The midpoint of the 35th Spoleto Festival slipped by without a fuss, hardly noticeable at all in fact, although in its wake were seen levitating children, a pair of mistreated cripples, two savants of the banjo, a surfeit of romantic Spanish moss at the Cistern, 13 songs for beautiful mutes, nude maidens dancing in a moonlit jungle, and a dazzling meditation upon the nature of time. Admittedly, this sounds rather like the throughline of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, but one can rest assured it's merely week two of the festival and, for all of that, a rather tame week. The national media finally showed up, though it couldn't seem to take its eyes off the Venice Biennale, the tart. There have been no unmitigated disasters and few scandals to speak of, despite there being a play featuring white actors in blackface and an almost nightly discussion at the Dock Street about the size and coloration of Irish priests' reproductive organs, punctuated by the colorful use of the F word (whether "feck" is any less legitimate a use of that word than Battlestar Galactica's "frak" is a debate I'd jump to see).
It's week two when Spoleto and its participants typically get into their groove, and there was grooving to be gotten into aplenty at the Cistern last week, with jazz or roots or world music or whatever you choose to call it being offered from Argentinian bassist and composer Willy González and Micaela Vita, reviving classical and traditional Argentine folksongs. Vita is too lovely a performer and too pleasant a personality to have hidden herself as she did behind her drums on the Cistern stage, but it's awfully easy to forgive her, as she did triple duty on vocals, a traditional drum, and as translator for González, who doesn't speak much English but made up for it with mad fingerwork and a sense of humor. In the same space, 20-year-old wunderkind Sarah Jarosz gave Alison Krauss something to worry about as she participated in the Wells Fargo Jazz Series during a break from her university studies.
At the College of Charleston's Emmett Robinson Theatre, musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (formerly of indie-pop '90s band Luna) are long past their college days, but they've still got the attitude and the retro fashion sense of their younger years. They presented the unique 13 Most Beautiful, a commission from the Andy Warhol Museum to write a soundtrack of sorts to 13 of the 500 four-minute screen tests the pop artist created from 1964-'66, a collection that includes many of Warhol's Factory chums: Edie Sedgwick, Paul America, Lou Reed, International Velvet, and Ingrid Superstar. Their Spoleto gig is far from the first time this show has been presented, but it certainly had the ambiance of originality. 13 Most Beautiful was low on chatter and high on aesthetic, with Wareham and Phillips filling the short spaces between clips and dreamy pop songs with brief anecdotes about the test subjects, much of which sounded like it had been scripted by Edward Gorey: F is for Freddy Herko who did the foxtrot out a window. At the recorded pre-show announcement that cell phones should be turned off and any recording of the event was strictly prohibited, the audience members all obediently and without irony turned off their phones. One suspects Warhol would not have submitted so easily.
But this show, appearing as it does this season aside The Cripple of Inishmaan, begs a question: How did something as industry arcane as the "screen test" come to be such a major part of Spoleto this year, featuring prominently, even critically, in two of this season's big theatrical offerings.
Wareham and Phillips lay down 80 minutes worth of aural accompaniment to a baker's dozen of Warhol's screen tests. And in Cripple, 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, and just such a chance is offered by a film director who's visiting town. 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.
Last week also treated us to the festival's big orchestral concert, wrangled by emerging American conductor James Gaffigan, who — it's been made clear — is not, repeat not, here to replace the recently departed Emmanuel Villaume as the festival's director for opera and orchestra. Yet.
From his baton's first downbeat, Gaffigan led the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in what was by all accounts a riveting performance which included Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss' opera Salome, four frothy fragments from Claude Debussy's music to The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and the grand finale, Russian master Sergei Prokofiev's mighty and magnificent Symphony No. 5, all of which Gaffigan and the young players seemed to bring off spectacularly.
Many will agree that the single most ravishingly beautiful moment of this year's Spoleto Festival to date occurred midway through the second of three extraordinary performances from Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Gaillard for their presentation of Re-Parts I, II, and III. Staged against a monumental backdrop of Cambodian jungle and crumbling ruins, one of Shen's impossibly tall dancers lay on the floor, painted milk white and clad only in a skin-colored loincloth. In a spotlit pool of brilliant white light, she bent her head back and arched her torso, legs crossed, so that she appeared to be sculpted from alabaster, literally statuesque, a figure that, had Michaelangelo carved it, would rightly have been worshipped for centuries. The work, Re-Part II, unfolded almost in slow motion, evoking the dilated passage of time at Cambodia's ancient Angkor temples and drawing heavily upon the choreographer's own experiences there.
It was an achingly gorgeous moment in an evening that was packed with such scenes. The overall effect couldn't have been further from that created by Corella Ballet last week, with the company's exuberantly formalist, neoclassical style filling the stage with arabesques, grand jetés, glissades, and fouettés en tournant. And despite the second work's focus on Cambodia, there was also none of the classical Khmer technique that provided the foundation for Emmanuel Phuon's Khmeropédies I and II in the festival's opening weekend. Like Kneehigh Theatre at the Memminger, Shen stepped into the festival with a work sprung from a vision absolutely unique in its originality. How he resisted the temptation to add cavorting gorillas, flying dancers, and fireworks, only he can know.
The Westminster Choir made two rapturous festival appearances last week at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul and then did a dance in the endzone with the Choral/Orchestral Concert, collaborating with the SFO on Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Brahms' Alto Rhapsody, and Bruckner's Te Deum.
Theatre 99 has been presenting their answer to the city-produced Piccolo Fringe for 11 years now, and they seem to take special pride in programming a roster of comedy acts that tweak the municipal sensibilities of the Office of Cultural Affairs, including, for example, the Amish Guide to Fucking from New York comedy-scene darling Kurt Braunohler. The show's name appeared in various published schedules, fringe and otherwise, with all of its full and proper English spelling hanging out for everyone to see.
On the boards last week, Paul Brittain of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Fest alum Jet Eveleth performed a collection of scenes from their improvised show at the iO Theater in Chicago. The program description for Ted and Melanie stated that "Brittain and Eveleth create a collection of short comedic plays with vulnerable characters," but this doesn't nearly do justice to the depth and breadth of the top-tier craftsmanship these two brought to their performance as actors. One of the oldest misunderstandings in the book is that comedy is easier than drama. Any actor will tell you it's child's play to make an audience cry, but to make them laugh takes talent of a rare magnitude.
But it's also instructive to watch a show like Ted and Melanie and marvel at how fine the line between comedy and drama can be. The characters these two specialize in are misanthropes and broken things, placed in awkward, uncomfortable, and disastrous situations: a woman who's just discovered the man she brought home and seduced is only 15 years old or a needy drunken college girl at a wedding party. As with all great art, the very best comedy, of which there is much on display here, often illuminates the darkness of the human condition. Shakespeare knew this, as have contemporary comedic actors like Bill Murray, Cripple playwright Martin McDonagh, and the twisted geniuses of The Red Shoes' Kneehigh Theatre. Slapstick and gross-out yuks and the like are low-hanging fruit for comedy everywhere (on the screen as much as on the stage), and it's to their credit that The Have Nots!, who program and host Piccolo Fringe at their theater, typically stay well away from it. The secret truth is that you're likely to see as much fine dramatic acting on the stage at Theatre 99 as anywhere on the big stages this season.
There's considerable agreement in the scientific community that time, as we think we know it, doesn't truly exist. This theory says that the universe and existence actually comprise every possible cause and every conceivable effect so that each exists only as an infinite number of permanent and unchanging moments, and our perception of time "passing" from present moment to present moment is merely an artifact of our psychology. This illusion felt particularly real at Saturday's third and never-so-appropriately named Music in Time program. This is partly because the program was dedicated to a single work from Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Paul Moravec, his 2001 Time Gallery, a piece for a large chamber ensemble. But it was also because Moravec was there in person to introduce and explain, at length and in detail, The Time Gallery and each of its four movements before the music actually began.
City Paper critic Lindsay Koob was on hand to parse the musical merit of the 45-minute chamber work, and he ranks it the best to date. The music was indeed evocative, lovely, and thoughtful, but some of us in the audience never recovered from the 15-minute introduction. As the indisputably gifted Moravec was finally wrapping things up, having walked us through a description of a piece one-third as long as the actual composition, I was reminded of a pithy quote from E.B. White: "Explaining a joke," he once said, "is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process."
At the Gaillard Auditorium on Sunday night, many in the filled-to-capacity crowd no doubt wished they could slow down time, the better to savor the full effect of what Béla Fleck and the Flecktones dished out on stage via the group's collection of banjo, piano, harmonica, violin, and an instrument called a drumitar invented by the group's percussionist, Futureman, who was decked out in a tricorn hat, dreads, and tailed black coat, a fair stand-in for Jack Sparrow.
City Paper critic Stratton Lawrence likened the musical result to seeing a supergroup, in which each of the musicians on stage is among the world's best at what he does. Bassist Victor Wooten, younger brother to Futureman, at one point quipped of the band's namesake, who had recently earned an honorary doctorate from Bowdoin College in Maine: "He's now Dr. Fleck, if you please, qualified to do all the things a doctor does, including dispensing prescriptions. And that's nice."
The end may be in sight, but the 35th Spoleto Festival has some fight in her yet. Still to come this week: Australia's contemporary circus company Circa, biographical dance sketches by Jérôme Bel for Cédric Andrieux, the rollicking Gospel at Colonus, revered Italian jazz pianist Danilo Rea, Edgar Oliver's affecting theatrical monologue East 10th Street, yet another concert from the Westminster Choir, a final Intermezzi presentation, five more Chamber Music programs, and, of course, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue and Friday night's not-to-be-missed Revelry Tremé, the official after-party event the City Paper is hosting with Spoleto Scene. Get the feck out there and see something.