SPOLETO ‌ That's a Wrap 

Parsing Spoleto '06's most memorable moments

click to enlarge Tristan & Yseult took audience participation to a new level; Charleston Ballet Theatre's Rite of Spring was perfectly filthy; the subversive side of Spoletians also showed
  • Tristan & Yseult took audience participation to a new level; Charleston Ballet Theatre's Rite of Spring was perfectly filthy; the subversive side of Spoletians also showed

Who am I kidding? The notion of me summing up all the best bits of this year's Piccolo and Spoleto festivals in a mere 1,800 words is like suggesting that Kirstie Alley slip into a pair of size 3 hotpants: ain't gonna happen. But I've dug up some highlights from the blur of curtain calls (40-plus total) and elbow-rubbing from the past three weeks.

Of course, there's a lot more to festival season than just what happens on stage. It's no accident that Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti jammed the whole thing into 17 days; he wanted Charlestonians to live the festival for two weeks, not just pop into and out of a show as they might any other day of the year.

So for three years now I've reported on the festival by blogging my daily experiences during each one, allowing for constant coverage, rather than just weekly overviews. Sure, it makes for a brutal schedule, but it's allowed us to cover the entire event in a manner closer to the way people actually experience Spoleto and Piccolo — from the street, in the lobbies, at parties and open-air concerts, in the restaurants and clubs.

The best way, therefore, to truly grasp Spoleto Festival USA 2006 would be to read the Spoletobuzz Blog (www.spoletobuzz.com) from its beginning on May 1 to its fevered end last weekend, with regular dips into the 12 audio podcasts I recorded with festival artists and lots of side-trips into Ida Becker's Spoleto Scene blog. The tyranny of print, however, demands that I summarize the whole thing in some fashion here. (You'll be able to find a more comprehensive version of this synopsis at the blog.) What follows, therefore is a thoroughly arbitrary, entirely subjective look at a few of the things I found most worth remembering about Spoleto festival season 2006.

Best Subversive Swipe
Shortly after Spoleto revealed the festival's official poster image — a sales-friendly watercolor of a heart from artist Jim Dine — local printmaker and graphic artist Johnny Pundt revealed his own Spoleto poster. It was a hand-printed red and yellow one, with the Spoleto name at the top, a Nike-style lightening flash in the center, and McDonalds' current marketing tagline at the bottom: "I'm Lovin' It." If that sounds like a comment on the hegemony of corporate-owned and sanctioned art (can anyone say "the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Spoleto Festival Orchestra"?), you're spot-on. The posters enlivened windows across the peninsula for all of 24 hours before Spoleto's merchandising machine caught wind of the parody and swept the city clean of them. My guess: that response was as much a part of Pundt's meta-commentary as the poster itself.

Strangest Premiere of a New Musical Work You'll Never, Ever Hear Again
A highlight of Spoleto's Opening Ceremony was a weird musical performance that consisted of 13 cars with speakers on their roofs performing a new work, Car-illon Fanfare, created by minimalist composer Philip Glass in honor of the festival's 30th anniversary. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on during the performance: a dozen tricked-out BMW's looped around each other in front of the crowd while harpsichord music played from them. Board president Eric Friberg suggested that the work "shows the many sides of Spoleto." Maybe. The most common sentiment was that it showed the many sides of festival sponsor BMW.

Most Visually Arresting Image in a Performance
For me, it wasn't the giant duck in Bill T. Jones' Blind Date. Nor was it the four-minute tongue-in-teeth action of the two dancers in ASzURe and Artists' Lascilo Perdere. It wasn't the beautiful staging and costumes of either of the two operas, Don Giovanni and Roméo et Juliette — though they were both wondrous to behold. It was in Ong Keng Sen's Geisha, whose spareness audiences found mostly unenthralling. But in the opening scene, actress Karen Kandel arose out of what we'd thought had been a pile of white sheets in the middle of the all-white stage and slowly drew the train of the dress she wore — which covered the square stage completely -— toward her in massive folds as she recited her monologue. It was a hell of an image.

Most Boinkable Artist
Blog commentators were unable to settle on a clear favorite among the sexpots featured in this year's festival. The highest marks, not surprisingly, went to Nman Ford (Don Giovanni himself), Tristan Sturrock and Katy Carmichael (Tristan and Whitehands, respectively, in Tristan & Yseult), dancer/choreographer Aszure Barton, new harp hottie Catrin Finch, and tall, blond piano bad boy Andrew von Oeyen. To this list I would have to add my own list of festival foxes: about half the female membership of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra violin section (call me!); June Raphael of Rode Hard and Put Away Wet at the Piccolo Fringe (hey, you saw the promotional pictures), and Laura Lounge of Stelle di Domani's Trust at Theatre 220 — and no, not just because she took her top off, you pigs.

Warmest Performance
There were plenty of hotties to be found underneath the big tent in Ansonborough Field at Circus Flora's short run of performances there during the festival's opening weekend, but it had to do more with the temperature inside the tent than high cheekbones. The phrase "like a sauna in here" gets tossed about a lot, but the only way the Circus Flora tent could have been any more like a sauna at noon on the first Saturday was if there'd been a pile of rocks in a corner. Audience members were dropping like flies (one did, anyway), and even the mosquitoes were panting.

Best Musical Theatre Production Charlestonians heard nothing of
The Post and Courier's new Spoleto overview critic, Joshua Rosenblum, is a composer, conductor, and lyricist whose classical music chops are well established. But in its lengthy description of his artistic background, the paper omitted one tiny detail: Rosenblum is also the creator, producer, and musical talent behind the current Off-Broadway hit Bush is Bad: The Musical Cure for the Blue State Blues, a satiric Tom Leher-style savaging of the Bush administration. Why would the P&C raise high the flag for Rosenblum's other composing credits, which all closed long ago, and not even mention the current run of a hot-ticket anti-Bush musical which he created? Gosh, we're stumped.

Most Welcome New Trend, If It's Real
The festival's first chamber music concert also featured the premiere cellphone performance of the'06 festival: "Hava Nagila," if I'm not mistaken. Despite that, audiences at this year's festival seemed to take fewer mid-performance phone calls than in recent years. I don't know if that's statistically provable — and there were surely lots of exceptions. (A favorite occurred during the 'Conversations With' program featuring Tristan & Yseult's Mike Shepherd and Craig Johnson. "Go ahead, take it." Shepherd said. "We'll wait for you.") My own theory: Spoleto audiences aren't becoming less inconsiderate, they're just text-messaging a lot more.

Best Place to Get Your Laugh On
Theatre 99's Piccolo Fringe was the 800-lb gorilla in this year's theatre program. There was other stuff going on elsewhere, to be sure: PURE Theatre's two shows, the CofC's three-show Stelle di Domani series, Art Forms and Theatre Concepts and Robert Ivey at Footlight, Sheri Grace Wenger's big music theatre series at Charleston Music Hall. But covering both Theatre 99 and the American Theater, the Have Nots!' Piccolo Fringe loomed over everything else like a laugh-shaped thunderhead. With 11 national-level comedy acts from as far away as L.A., Vancouver, Chicago, and New York, it was damn near impossible not to find something worth busting a gut on. Highlights for this festival-goer included Rode Hard and Put Away Wet, Upright Citizens Brigade, We Used To Go Out (hands down the funniest thing in this year's festival), and the brilliant Improvised Shakespeare Company — who, word has it, will likely be returning in January for the 4th Charleston Comedy Festival.

Best Use of a Mattress
All five of Spoleto's theatre productions this year were memorable for, among other things, dynamiting the fourth wall — that imaginary barrier between audience and performer that playwrights throughout history have used to create the illusion of a separate reality on stage. Monologuist Mike Daisey squeezed our hearts by speaking to us directly from behind a desk, while Danny Hoch alternated between beautifully nuanced characterizations and strident lectures on hip-hop culture, all the while merrily dropping f-bombs like confetti. In Geisha, actress Kandel and onnagata Gojo Masanosuke took us through a Brechtian exploration of the many aspects of the Japanese geisha throughout history, and da da kameras's play A Beautiful View had the two actors stopping in the middle of scenes and addressing the audience with commentary on the scene itself. But the most engaging, purely entertaining example was Kneehigh Theatre's extraordinary Tristan & Yseult, which made the audience as much a part of the play as the actors themselves. They also laid bare the normally hidden mechanics of the production, including a large black safety cushion which actors on the raised platform in the center of the stage variously fell onto and tripped over. "Mind that big black mattress there," Frocin (Giles King) warned an actor after one such instance. "Don't worry," he then said, gesturing to the audience, "I don't think they've seen it."

Most Colorful Performance
It'd take a more astute observer than me to determine if this goes to neotraditional Indian Dance Troupe Nrityagram at Emmett Robinson Theatre or Sara Baras Ballet Flamenco at the Gaillard, so I'll call it a tie. In both cases, the dancers were a kaleidoscopic swirl of energy, color, and grace, and the live accompaniment for each was as huge a part of the show as the dancing. I pity the poor fool who missed either one.

Most Annoying Pain in the Ass
There's no contest: parking near the Simons Center for the Arts this year walks away with this one. Could the College of Charleston have timed its demolition of the parking garage at George and St. Philips streets, and the ensuing construction project, any more poorly? There were five major performance venues within spitting distance of the earthen pit that used to be the St. Philips Street garage: Sottile Theatre, The Cistern, Emmett Robinson Theatre, Recital Hall, and Theatre 220. Woe betide the sorry bastard who sought a parking spot anywhere near this blighted, accursed site.

Biggest Spoleto Controversy
It should have been no surprise that celebrated choreographer Bill T. Jones' new work Blind Date, which landed smack in the middle of the festival, had a political edge to it, given his history, but still there were those who gnashed their teeth over it. One audience member even booed the performance — though he waited until the ovation was over and the crowd had begun to file out of the Sottile Theatre before doing so. Jones rushed back to the stage and called out the booer, who engaged him in a testy exchange from the mezzanine. The incident set tongues to wagging for the rest of the festival, and opinions on the subject were as common as, well, you know. In the end, the incident affirmed once again Spoleto's reputation for adventurous programming that

pushes both envelopes and buttons. I wouldn't have it any other way.


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