Saturday, May 25, 2013

A theme emerges, but you might not want to know what it is

Death Knell

Posted by Jeffrey Day on Sat, May 25, 2013 at 11:24 AM

The Spoleto Festival is supposed to be about something life-affirming; at least that’s what someone says at the opening ceremonies.

I’ve generally thought of that as just a generalization handily trotted out. Yeah, yeah, of course the arts are life-affirming, except for completely nihilistic works.

Although we hinted at it yesterday, that sunny, breezy beautiful opening day wasn’t the time to bring up the theme that has already emerged in the festival: death. Now it’s not all bad because while it may be about slipping off this mortal coil and the fragility and briefness of this life, it is also, yep, life-affirming.

To repeat a few things from yesterday: this year’s festival is dedicated to its first chairman Ted Stern, who died in January at 100; this is choral music director Joe Flummerfelt’s last festival; and chamber music series founder Charles Wadsworth will give his final public performance at the festival.

The opening chamber concert featured the monumental Quintet in C Major by Schubert with two cellos to make it darker. This was Schubert’s last work, written just two months before he died at 31 in 1828. Talk about the fragility of life and the unfairness; Schubert wasn’t considered a very important composer during his life and this quintet wasn’t performed until 32 years after his death. Schubert knew death wasn’t far off and this can be heard in the works from his final and finest few years.

In the opera Matzukaze, death is more obvious when the ghosts of two sisters appear to a traveling monk. The 2011 opera by leading Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa had its U.S. premiere Friday night in an original production by the festival in conjunction with the Lincoln Center Festival. The ghosts in Matzukaze are not the quiet sort — they’re sopranos. The opera set on a sea coast took on added significance when just months after it was written, Japan was hit by a deadly earthquake and tsunami.

Led by resident conductor John Kennedy, the orchestra performed the compelling score for mostly traditional Western instruments with energy and excellence as did the four singers and an eight-member on-stage chorus. It is at times quiet and spare, other times thunderous.

But the pining of the sisters for their poet lover who up and died on them, killing them from grief isn’t particularly sublime in this staging. The opera opens with a lovely erosion of salt or stone projections upon a pleated fabric scrim behind which the chorus, dressed in similarly crinkled costumes, moves elegantly. Then a huge upside-down tree, made of clear plastic tubing washed in light, descends. This highly stylized approach quickly gives way to sets, costumes, and acting that are much more naturalistic and obvious. Director Chen Shi-Zheng’s approach to make it “realistic” turns this into a ghoulish spectacle when it might have been something much deeper and quieter about love, loss, and mortality — all characteristics the score and libretto provide.

No one dies in Mayday Mayday, Tristan Sturrock’s one-man show about his fall from a wall, broken neck, and recovery. This is both a very physical and very emotional work and hugely successful on both levels. Like Matzukaze, it begins with a striking visual — the actor falling through the air, although this is done not without elaborate sets, just a big mirror and the artist’s body. The entire show is very much about the body, what it can do, what it can’t do, how it is all we have to live in and how it is the death of us. Sturrock’s body is the actor, the set, and the design.

Sturrock, who festival audiences will remember from his amazing turn in Tristan and Yseult with Kneehigh Theatre in 2006, is remarkably honest about the injury that broke his neck — he got drunk and fell off a wall. He is so wonderfully full of life and joy as he starts the journey, taking us through his home up the long stone steps, visiting his pregnant partner as she soaks in the tub and demands chips.

Then, he’s discovered in the wee hours of the morning wedged between wall and garage, unable to move. He lies on the stage not moving and we are there with him. At the hospital, he’s told there are a couple of solutions, neither of them easy, one possibly fatal — he picks the latter and begins his journey back, learning to walk. Although he mostly plays himself, he takes on the role of paramedic, doctor, nurses, visitors, all while playing himself at the same time, which is in itself quite a physical feat.

One can’t help but be astounded that this play about physical frailty is told so much though the body — this thing which traps us, kills us. Sturrock uses this fragile container to contemplate what the body means and to celebrate life, knowing that is so brief but can be so shining.

Afterward I ran into a few folks (Jeanette Guinn and Susan Kattwinkel of the College of Charleston and Katie Fox, who runs a performance venue in Columbia) and we all agreed we were pretty blown away by Mayday. We compared personal physical injury notes and decided that the play reaches you whether or not you’ve been broken. Guinn and Kattwinkell brought up more death-related theater, like Women of Lockerbie about the explosion of a plane over Scotland that’s part of Piccolo. Yes there’s more of the D word stuff.

And in store for tonight: the operas Le Villi and Mese Mariano which promise to be filled with heartache and death. But life seems very full of possibilities.

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