Year of the Trickster 

Spoleto 2008 gets our heads spinning with enlightened monkeys, freedom seekers, truth lovers, and absurdist cabaret performers

click to enlarge I Live Next Door to Horses Have a chat about Cats - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • I Live Next Door to Horses Have a chat about Cats

Now that we've survived the first weekend of the 2008 Spoleto season, what has it all meant so far? Well, Monkey is awesome, though some are undecided. Amistad was a good try, but left our heads spinning a bit. La Cenerentola pleased the conventional and surprised the unconventional. The jazz series has given us new faces, but the same quality and sophistication we've come to expect. And a dancer from India has made us reconsider our secularism. The big news is the best show. It's not Monkey, but the short and complex Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, presented by 1927.

Old opera, new ideas

La Cenerentola is the belle of the ball when it comes to opera this year. Amistad tried its very best, but can't compete with the glamour of Cinderella. What's striking is that the Spoleto production, directed by Charles Roubaud, looks back and looks forward at the same time.

It looks back by being traditional in its music. Even the singers are pretty conventional in that they didn't have much sense of rhythm the night I saw it and there were several trainwrecks between the chorus and the orchestra.

It looks forward in its staging and tech, especially the use of video to complement the story. We've seen multimedia used in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, in Monkey: Journey to the West, and will see it used in the break/s, but these are all new. La Cenerentola, on the other hand, is an old workhorse. That it's getting the multimedia treatment signals that the integration of moving image with stage performance has graduated beyond the level of novelty. It's art now.

Heir apparent?

On Saturday morning, Charles Wadsworth, Spoleto's director of chamber music, announced that Geoff Nuttall, the first violinist for the St. Lawrence String Quartet is his new associate artistic director.

Wadsworth's announcement is perhaps a sign that he is grooming Nuttall as his replacement after founding the chamber music series more than 30 years ago. E-mails to Paula Edwards, public relations director for Spoleto, deny that Wadsworth is grooming Nuttall or planning to step down.

Even so, Wadsworth turned 79 on Tuesday. Last weekend, he was still his dapper and charming self, but he took the stage gingerly, using a railing and the piano to steady himself as he shuffled to the bench.

His frail appearance combined with a tone of seriousness. He relayed an anecdote from the night before. His wife fell and broke her wrist. They spent much of last night in the emergency room. She's fine but in pain. He'd be leaving shortly.

Ever the joker, Wadsworth found time for a laugh. In 42 years of marriage, it was the first time he put clothes on his wife. You might try it, he suggested.

"It might put some zing back in your marriage," he said.

Monkey madness

I've talked to a lot of people who love Chen Shi-Zheng's Journey to the West, his collaboration with Britpop star Damon Albarn and Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett. What's perhaps a little surprising is how many people are on the fence.

No one seems to doubt Monkey will soon have a much longer life somewhere on Broadway and beyond (likely China). The intersection of acrobatics, animation, mythic storytelling, pantomime, whimsical costumes — everyone agrees that the integration is natural and fantastic.

What I think has these intelligent doubters scratching their heads is why they don't love it. Some say the fight scenes could be shorter. Others say the costumes were too cartoonish. Others call for more characterization.

These are valid points. But I think what is missing so far is a discussion about values in traditional societies, like China, in which the individual matters less than the community. The moral is that Monkey stops thinking about what he values and gets in line with what society values (i.e., redemption, enlightenment). Given this, cartoonish costumes make sense. They are one dimensional. The lack of characterization makes sense. A focus on individuals would be inappropriate.

Monkey is an attempt at creating pure spectacle. It's a stunning demonstration of surfaces played out in one dimension. Problem is, spectacle by its nature is impersonal, manipulative. If there's too much, we can feel hijacked. So I think Monkey should be shorter. Americans love spectacle, just not too much.

I, Malaprop

John Kennedy thinks the ideal conditions for Morton Feldman's four-hour For Philip Guston would be a quiet, informal setting in which you could walk around, meditate, stroll, or lie down. Feldman's work is the centerpiece of Kennedy's Music in Time, a series of Spoleto concerts that showcases the new work of living composers or newish work that is rarely performed in a major forum.

Wagner and Strauss wrote music with long, sustained passages of harmonic tension that released into tonic resolution only after making you sweat for a while. They were just as harmonically taxing as Feldman's chromatic build-up, which releases, Kennedy said, in the third hour into a flowering of a major key.

"People really feel a real sense of catharsis when that happens," he said.

I have no doubt they do. Still. Four hours? I admitted to Kennedy during a party last week that I was intrepid about sitting through it, that I was intrepid despite my enthusiasm. There are so many other things to do during Spoleto that a four-hour commitment seemed rather extreme. So I was intrepid, intrepid, intrepid.

click to enlarge Is Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea the best of Spoleto? - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Is Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea the best of Spoleto?

It didn't occur to me why bewilderment flashed across Kennedy's face at every iteration of the word until I was walking to my car. Let's see: "Intrepid." Webster says "characterized by resolute fearlessness." I meant I was trepid, meaning fearful and timid, but that usage doesn't sound right either. Ugh.

Even so, perhaps I was right in one sense. Just as I'm trepid, as it were, about committing so much time to one event while there are so many other things going on, Kennedy grew trepid during our lengthy conversation about the party bars closing at midnight before he could get another martini. In fact, both of us were trepid. We were right to be fearful — last call had been long ago. We missed out.

Frustrating Amistad

The restaging of Anthony Davis' 1997 opera about the legal and moral battle of slave ship mutineers was so ambitious I feel bad for saying that I don't love it. I was prepared to. I wanted to love it, but I didn't. That frustrates me.

One issue is there are too many complex ideas, moral issues, and philosophical questions crammed into it. These take the form of a dialectic: They face off with each other, clash, synthesize, clash again. The number of dialectics is dizzying.

These dialectics are sung in highly symbolic and poetic language in a highly disjointed and hybridized musical idiom. The arguments are inherently hard to keep track of, but it's a task made more difficult by two things.

One is how the singers turn their backs to you in the Memminger's black box. The other is that the libretto's action often draws you away from the center, where the supertitles are projected. So you can't hear what is being said or understand it.

Then there's the Trickster God. He's the Lord Riddler, Lord of Illusion, a petty and fallible god in the ancient sense: "Gods are greater than men, not nicer," he says. With the trickster in place, the white man's enslavement of Africans becomes a spoke in the wheel of fortune — a danger that the mindful African has to watch out for. You never know what's going to happen when the Trickster God is around. You might get sold into slavery.

So far, so ingenious. The problem comes when the trickster's complex sensibilities get enmeshed in the ideologies and perspectives that constitute the entire second half of the opera, which is, I think, a dialectical on the origins of freedom. It's pretty abstract stuff, even more so when you can't hear what's being sung.

The Memminger was the right place in terms of marketing (great news stories) but the wrong place in terms of opera. Amistad still awaits a revelatory revision.

What is between the devil and the deep blue sea?

Answer? So far, the best show of Spoleto 2008. The reason? This "theatrical cabaret" by London-based 1927 is truly of our time. It's theater of the absurd for the 21st century, a harbinger of things to come.

We are a culture that tolerates, and increasingly demands, the mixing of styles, genres, and media to see if something new happens. And it does here. Devil is a thrilling show that plays with conventions of silent film, pantomime, and cabaret. It plays with comic sensibilities and with what's real and what's not — and that fearful in-between.

Devil is like a dream about a movie, but you've managed to put yourself in the movie, something that you know isn't real; but in the unreal reality of a dream, it becomes real. That's frightening. You thought you knew what reality was. Until now. And now that reality is turned upside down, what was once funny is sinister and what was once sinister is now funny.

click to enlarge Amistad is too complex for it's own good - LESLIE MCKELLAR

The source of the universe

We don't talk about the Truth much anymore, the source of being, the primal essence of existence, the metaphysics beyond the veil of forms that Plato made clear in his Cave of Shadows.

In our postmodern world, we talk about truth but not Truth.

At least not in intellectual circles dried of religion or spiritual sentiment or any such metaphysical thinking that's a vestige of the Enlightenment. We "know" now that we can never get away from the Subject. All is radically contingent. There is no source in the universe. The universe is us — the measure of all things.

So what to make of Shantala Shivalingappa? The Indian dancer's performance reflected mankind's yearning for something greater than itself. The performance was religious in nature, reverent in tone. There were dedications to Ganesh, to Shiva, and to the Ohm, the eternal vibration that "is the source of us all," she said.

It's that thing that Plato might have recognized as the Truth.

How do we understand this performance without reducing the conversation to a checklist of cultural signifiers, as if this were Anthropology 101? I don't believe in Ganesh or what we usually think of as God. But I do feel something.

Am I being quaint in admitting there might be something greater than ourselves? Am I being condescending in being reminded of that mystery from a dancer who clearly believes there's more to Truth than just truth?

And the joke of the week goes to ...

I Live Next Door to Horses, the sketch comedy duo from Chicago and members of the improv group, The Reckoning. Their final sketch involves two elderly ladies reminiscing about old TV shows and the states of their respective pussies. I doubt I'll think of The Vagina Monologues quite the same way again.

"My pussy used to be so wet," called Holly Laurent.

"How wet was it," replied Jet Eveleth.

"My pussy was so wet that if you took it down to New Orleans, they'd say, 'Hey, is that you, Katrina?'"


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