Fantastic Tales 

I don't think that means what you think it means

Most ideas don't spring out at you like leopards from the tall grass. They take a roundabout path. They tease with whispers and nudges, like a bit of foreplay.

So there was Hay Fever on Friday night, hinting at its naughty intentions with a curtain drawn across the stage that bore the silk-screened image of an art deco gal dressed in fire-engine red, reclining against a pillowy background. As we took our seats in the Dock Street Theatre, we couldn't help but notice that woman on the curtain, provocatively concealing most of the stage, exposing only the very edges of the set — stage left, stage right — like a glimpse of petticoat ruffling out from under a skirt.

That same evening, Cécile McLorin Salvant sang in the Cistern yard, and damn if she didn't make those old oaks straighten up and take notice: Twenty-two years old! She's barely a sapling! But she too cooed and swayed, even as she brought the night air to a simmer.

The next day, with news of a tropical storm approaching, cool breezes ran along the streets. You could feel the changes taking shape. Theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, and garden venues had suddenly shifted their weight and settled in to their roles, happily, now full of light and sound and people.

Saturday was a pivotal day.

Both LEO and The Animals and Children Took to the Streets struck a chord that reverberated throughout the rest of the weekend. And while LEO may have been a little coy, Animals was not.

LEO's strangely constrained world — a box of colored walls — seemed to say "Yes, we're boxed in, and isn't it all pretty?"


Animals' world existed only as a series of projected images in which live actors filled in the blanks with song and narrative poetry. We discovered just how fragile Animals' world was when near the end of Saturday's matinee performance, that projection video feed suddenly vanished, leaving behind only blank canvases and bemused actors unexpectedly cast adrift in their story. Quickly recovering, they plunged back into the tale. But the glitchy gap was almost perfect for being abrupt, unforeseen, and accidental. It served to underscore one read of the story being told: We do not have control. No one does. In the end, that misfire earned Animals a ratcheted-up round of applause and a well-deserved ovation. But the accidental message had been transmitted and decoded.

Both LEO and Animals gave us their versions of an Everyman living in an ever-so-slightly nightmarish muddle. In LEO, the disorientation was confinement within a room where gravity seemed to have lost its proper grip. In Animals, the disorientation was — just about everything. The Bayou Mansions boarding house on Redherring Street is home to a 21-year-old granny, a man with a horse for a roommate, and a pervert who sniffs women's bicycle seats. These residents were simply mentioned, just to give us a sense of this place where "everything starts life as a bad smell."

Both productions played their sense of disorientation for laughs (and succeeded) but LEO is the light-hearted half of this duo. Animals kept more shadows around without ever becoming completely bleak. Much of what made these works compelling and provocative was a keen focus on strangeness, which led their audiences to focus on it, too. And once you begin focusing on what you might otherwise ignore, you open yourself to being surprised by some fabulous things.

I use that word, fabulous, not merely as a superlative, but in its strictest sense. "Fabulous" as in a fable. Because that is where the weekend's chord, struck by LEO and Animals, seemed to lead. Into fable and, more specifically, fantasy. Why fantasy?

One way of understanding how fantasy can serve us — as a guide to reality, especially an uncomfortable reality — comes from Ursula K. LeGuin, author of the beloved Earthsea trilogy. "Fantasy," she writes, "is a game played for very high stakes ... It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe ... it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

The italics are LeGuin's. And very significant italics they are. Because as an audience, that is exactly what we are after with our ticket money — change. (No, not coins in return. Transformation.) In reaction to a work of art, we look for some movement, even the slightest shift in our selves, that confirms we've just had a significant experience. A worthy one.

Coming into this opening weekend, I had written about uncertainty, a scent I thought I'd sniffed out among the shows featured in the Spoleto festival brochure. Like Philip Glass' Kepler, I went looking for unassailable proof. That proof didn't just fall into place. In fact, Kepler threw a monkey wrench into the works.

Glass' Kepler is a man obsessed, equal parts researcher, egotist, and drama queen all wrapped up in one doggedly inquiring mind. And since the opera's libretto intentionally gave us only paint daubs in place of a narrative portrait, we left the Sottile with only an impressionist's sketch of the man. It wasn't until we heard Jack Hitt explain it all to us in his Making Up the Truth that we understood Kepler's problem. He was a brilliant but miserable sod because he couldn't get his story straight.

In Making Up the Truth, Hitt tossed knowledge at us with such humor and nonchalance that we might have missed it all because we were laughing through the lesson. But at least some of what he had to impart stuck.

We are creatures who live in a continually sequential present moment. A present moment that lasts — oh, about three seconds. That's it. Our lives, our direct consciousness, is just that: three seconds here and the next three and the three after that and so on. The remainder of what we think of as our life is narrative. The stuff we use to hold our world together in each of those three-second consciousness sound bites is story — about the past, the future, the things we allow ourselves to perceive in the present. (Note: Hitt does a great job of explaining all this, unlike what I just did.) What this thesis boils down to is that we are the stories we tell ourselves. After the Kepler confusion, it was a huge relief to hear this. Clearly, obsessed Mr. Kepler could not decide which storyline he was in — not even for three seconds at a time. God is Divine. God is in all His works. Even me. I am divine. I am God. No, I am not fit to be God's shoehorn. What is the shape of a peapod? Yikes!

But all of the above is simply yammering about aspects of reality. Where does the fantasy element, the tool Spoleto artists seem to be using to get us thinking in new ways, come in?

Your mind is busy. All the time. Like Santa Claus, it sees you when you're sleeping, it knows when you're awake. And because your mind likes to function along well-established paths, it's extremely hard to get the brain's attention unless you're posing it a direct threat. Now, I don't know about your learning patterns, but standing over a student with a big stick bristling with nails is not exactly a "best practices" didactic approach.

Maybe, if you're an artist and you want to share a hard truth about an unpleasant reality, you don't go straight at the brain's bulwarks like a mad, medieval raider. Instead, you lay a trap. You use the brain's most powerful gift, its story-making function, against it. So you tell a diverting tale. Devise a compelling fantasy. And dodge all the brain's stay-in-this-groove, indolent defenses. Even Ollie North might concede this is "a neat idea."

Does it work? Can you identify a merchant solely by their logo? Can you hum the tune of some commercial jingle? Was history changed by Herr Goebbel's oeuvre? You might have read George Orwell on propaganda. Thought police, anyone? These examples are all species of fantasy, made-to-order make-believe.

Bottom line, fantasy works. C. S. Lewis (the Narnia author) went so far as to argue that fantasy was far too potent to be confined merely to children's lit. In his essay, "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said," he writes: "The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode [that]... has the power to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of 'commenting on life,' can add to it."

So I can look at the previous weekend's many flights of fancy — LEO's Kandinsky-colored, gravity-skewed box; Animals' fractured urban eco-system; Kepler's sketchy obsessions; and Jack Hitt, the mad scientist who is neither — and see the thread of fantasy woven in all of them. Even the musical events of the weekend — glorious Cécile and her promising future, the ravishing performance at the keyboard by David Peña Dorantes — these too are journeys. Wild, sonic journeys. Mythic "transports of delight."

Looking ahead, I'm anxious to hear what Feng Yi Ting has to say. It's based on a historically true story, but the emphasis here has to be on story. Time, as Hitt pointed out, has a way of weeding the garden of memory, paring things to an essence that may not have been obvious at the exact lived moment of the events. Whatever that "exact lived moment" may be.

And I'm curious to see what other devious devices Spoleto artists are willing to deploy, just to get under our minds' early warning radar.

Lastly, one debate continues.

Last week in the CP, Susan Cohen made a compelling argument that this year's Spoleto concerns lies and truth. I speculated about uncertainty as an overarching idea of this year's festival. After this weekend, I believe that behind lies and truth and uncertainty, there is a more fundamental notion asserting itself. And I would not have noticed it if it were not for the element of fantasy coming into the mix.

When there's uncertainty and we're facing a spectrum of lies and truth, we're calling up our remaining reserves of perception. Something is a lie or the truth. I'm not certain what I'm really seeing. If what Hitt told us is true, then I can make my "story" about these things go in any direction. So, perhaps, the fundamental notion at play here is, simply, trust. We have uncertainty — can we trust our perceptions? We are being told either lies or the truth — can we trust each other?

This is an especially tough nut to chew on since trust is a subsidiary brand of faith. And we don't even want to get into that.

It might suffice, for now, to quote LeGuin again and assert that this is where we are, possibly: "[In] a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe ... it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Weigh in online with your comments. What do you see in this year's Spoleto?

And follow our continuing Spoleto coverage at the SpoletoBuzz Blog .


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