The Cult of Personality 

Two weekends down and one more to go in the 2008 Spoleto Festival USA

Now that we have the first and second weekends of the 2008 Spoleto Festival behind us, it's time to reflect. The biggest of the big ticket items have opened and are gaining momentum.

An amazing 19th performance has been added to the run of Monkey: Journey to the West, but the short-lived Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is getting most of the critical and audience buzz. Jorma Elo of the Boston Ballet got a bit boring, but fortunately we have our moments of Zen.

One little bit of Piccolo Spoleto theater, Vaud Rats, has managed to charm, but a Spoleto offering, The Burial at Thebes, was diminished by bad sound.

The cult of Wadsworth

The Post and Courier's Spoleto overview critic Tim Page would like to know what's going to be performed at Charles Wadsworth's chamber music series before he gets to the theater. As it is, the program is announced on a chalkboard located at the theater's entrance.

Some have called Page's comment, published last week in the P&C, mere griping. Anyone who goes to see chamber music curated by Wadsworth, something he's done since the beginning of Spoleto, knows how it goes. It seems a bit daft, some say, for a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic to complain.

I think Page is right, but his critics are right, too. I have mentioned often that not knowing what's going to be on a program is irritating. I was at the concert Page talks about, the one featuring the work of an obscure Finnish composer named Bernhard Crusell. "Bernhard who?" Page wrote. He's right.

I think Page should have been more judicious in his comment. But this is a non-issue. What's more important is not the daily special-style chalkboard that Page refers to, but the issue that's really at hand — the cult of Wadsworth.

One reason among many that I'm sure explains the embargo on programs is Wadsworth's reputation. He doesn't need to announce them. Over the course of 30-plus years of curating the chamber music series, he has built a following of devoted fans, who have no qualms about sitting through a piece by a no-name Finnish composer. They don't mind, as Page writes, that neither Wadsworth nor his heir apparent, Associate Artistic Director Geoff Nuttall, bothered to mention Crusell's first name. The more they hold back, the more their followers want to know.

Wadsworth's achievement in spreading the gospel of chamber music can't be overstated. Nor can the appeal of his personality. Even so, his achievement and personality may at this point have calcified into cult-like form.

A problem with a cult of personality is that everything hinges on the object of the cult. Wadsworth is the center that holds. If he isn't there, things may fall apart. A cult of personality also excludes as much as it includes — the more Wadsworth holds back, the more his followers want, which in turn encourages him to hold back even more. This cycle of codependence is, however, likely to discourage newbies from bothering to pay the membership fee. Case in point is Page's comment. If he's thinking that, no doubt many others are, too.

This isn't a problem for Wadsworth. But it is for chamber music. Wadsworth turned 79 last week. He looks frail. He told us at the first chamber program that his wife fell and broke her wrist on King Street. Time is catching up with him, and it might be catching up with his chamber series, too.

So it's heartening to see that Nuttall seems the heir apparent. The challenge for Nuttall, if he inherits Wadsworth's mantle, will be refreshing his ranks. He seems able to meet the challenge. Even so, time will tell.

click to enlarge Boston Ballet stuck in idle - KEVIN HOTH

Jorma's tutus

At the beginning of the Boston Ballet's Brake the Eyes, I was in awe. The choreography by Jorma Elo, the company's resident choreographer and current It Boy in ballet, seemed to draw from street dancing and traditional dance as much as it was rooted in the fundamentals of ballet. Elo seemed to combine angular and frenetic movements with graceful and poetic movements.

It was new.

The dancers' joints are angles of a frame. Their limbs are the skeletal structure of a machine. Cybernetic and human, hot but also cool. It seemed novel and familiar, a mark of creative genius. Each ballerina wore a conventional tutu, a sign that suggested a statement: that there's room enough in the tradition for novelty; that there's room enough for the present as well as fealty to the past.

Then I got bored.

After the first blush of novelty and intrigue, Brake the Eyes unfortunately settled into a pattern of numbing repetition. It vacillated between the barren and ominous, the light and peppy. Atmospheric sounds punctuated by vapid whisperings in Russian traded off with the classical forms of Mozart.

Perhaps it's the dance version of a John Adams-like minimalism. But even in minimalism, you can sense development. Something is going somewhere somehow. Even if you can't articulate any of those things. Emotionally, Brake the Eyes left me without much feeling of affection.

So much for tutus.

click to enlarge Vaud Rats charms Piccolo
  • Vaud Rats charms Piccolo

Rat buzz

I've never been touched by the sight of a grown man singing to his foot, but indeed I got all verklempt during Vaud Rats. The foot in question belonged to K. Brian Neel, a Seattle actor and playwright who created and acted in the one-man show about a impoverished and forgotten vaudeville star living out his days on scraps of memory and love lost.

We find him in a sewer, deep in his cups, and wearing little more than his gigantic white boxer shorts and black suspenders. The rats of the title are us, the audience, the only one he has left. The foot puppet scene comes when Neel's character, Cecil DeUkulele, recalls the heartache of a love affair with the beautiful Opal as he plays the ukulele and sings. (The show's structure was a series of song-and-dance numbers.)

On his left foot is a blue sock, representing him. On his right is a pink sock, representing Opal. As he strums his "midget guitar," Cecil acts out their dangerous liaison. His barely contained longing to be in her arms alternates with his fear of being discovered by Opal's husband, a powerful and violent man. They are both afraid, but love compels them to tempt fate.

This is, of course, after Cecil DeUkulele has charmed us with his self-effacing humor, his mastery of parody (my favorite is the cigar-chewing showbiz manager type), his tuneful and joyful songs, and his eagerness to entertain us.

The tragic tale that Cecil recounts sits side by side with a wonder and whimsy that comes from a man singing to his feet, like children acting out adult dramas with their fingers as stand-ins for people. It's a charming and emotionally complex moment that makes clear why people are talking about Vaud Rats.

It didn't cost a million dollars

Nigel Redden, Spoleto director, didn't seem pleased to learn the biggest buzz of the festival so far has been for Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which ended last week, and not Monkey: Journey to the West.

The people I've talked to say they loved Devil, a funny, macabre, and brilliant bit of absurdist theater. Not the same for Monkey. Perhaps elevated expectations are to blame. The star factor, too: an acclaimed opera director working with a highly popular songwriter and illustrator.

During a party last week after the opening of The Burial at Thebes, I told Redden that the people I've talked to about Devil have raved about it, with no doubt in their minds about how good it was. Dressed in a dapper blue blazer, khakis, and yellow neck tie, Redden gave me that impish deadpan look.

"That's unfortunate to hear," he said. "It didn't cost a million dollars."

He was referring, of course, to the cost of mounting Monkey, about $1.3 million. Monkey's price tag, along with other ebbs and flows in a bad year in general for financial support (most of it from private sources), put Spoleto in the red (about $292,000, though it could be more) for the first time in more than a decade.

Monkey was Spoleto's second choice. It originally wanted The Gate Theatre's Sweeney Todd. Plans fell through at the last minute. Nevertheless, Monkey's tickets are selling well. Festival organizers have added two new dates to its schedule in the last week, with 19 performances so far.

Your Spoleto moment(s) of Zen

John Kennedy must have a thing for stillness. For inner peace. For serenity. Many of the new works in his series Music in Time (the last of which was Tuesday) have reflected a longing for being in the moment, for "living in the sound," as he said of Somei Satoh's Glimmering Darkness.

click to enlarge The State of Heads raises conciousness - BEN WILLIAMS

Written for string ensemble, it's a study in pace and mindfulness. "He has written some of the slowest music in the world," Kennedy said. "It gives you the opportunity to experience the sound from the inside." Indeed, the piece is so slow, and at times so lush, that it compels you to be conscious of the very vibrations of the sound, not just the pulse of tempo but the pulse of life.

A dance recital the week before by Shantala Shivalingappa, the classical Indian dancer, was rife with religious sentiment, with each segment devoted to a god, but also to the Ohm, the eternal vibration of the universe, the essence of being. She would have a lot to say about Kaija Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens, performed during another Music in Time concert, which features ambient sounds recorded by the composer in gardens in the Kyoto.

These found sounds are played with a solo percussionist using an array of instruments: triangles, chimes, timpani, wood block, and many more. Like Sotah and Shivalingappa, Saariaho offers a moment in which to reflect, to push aside consciousness, to consider the essence of nothingness, the fullness of emptiness.

My favorite moment of Zen came from a California girl named Donna Uchizono. Her modern dance company performed an older work over the weekend called State of Heads. Similar to Satoh's Glimmering Darkness, it gave us the opportunity to feel not sound but space, the three dimensions that we live in every day but usually push below the level of consciousness.

State of Heads reduced dance to its basic elements. Sounds we usually ignore — the buzz of a fluorescent light, the drip of a leaky faucet — moved to the fore. Movement became angular and measured and deliberate. The dancers were marionettes. With such an elemental focus, a new level of consciousness was born, a transformation that was eerie and frightening but also thrilling.

When a cacophony of sound and movement erupts amid red costumes and a stark white background, State of Heads provided a bracing rush to the senses. It was the soul's reawakening. Fullness was born of emptiness. The non-real had become the real. As Kennedy might say, we were living inside space and time.

click to enlarge The Burial at Thebes comes to a stop - LESLIE MCKELLAR

What would Aristotle think?

Rain threatened to dampen the Nottingham Playhouse's opening of The Burial at Thebes at the Cistern. Thebes is a 2004 translation of Sophocles' Antigone, the Greek tragedy, by Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet. Fortunately, rain never came.

Unfortunately, no one could stop the United States Air Force from sending its screaming jets over the peninsula. This put a stop to the play, literally. Creon paused mid-speech to let the jet pass over, draining away whatever focus he had on the "Creon Test," or the measure of men in positions of power.

It's the single most important moment of foreshadowing in the play, the moment that we're invited to draw comparisons to present-day America, to George Bush, whom Heaney was thinking about when he translated the text, and it was lost.

No one could stop the guy collecting empty bottles from making a racket either. Nor could anyone do anything, it seemed, about the constant microphone issues that plagued the play. Mics cut out. Some didn't work. So much depends on the words. If you can't hear those words, then what?

After Aristotle saw Antigone, he wrote Poetics, his treatise on the principles of drama and aesthetics that we still argue about today. Aristotle didn't get frustrated by microphones. Perhaps there were things that were out of anyone's control, like rain and screaming jets, but at least the sound was good.


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