Spoleto moments stolen by our own hand-helds 

The Ones That Got Away

click to enlarge Carcalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights had to compete with chatty audience members

William Struhs

Carcalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights had to compete with chatty audience members

For the final overview of the 2019 Spoleto Festival season, I suggest we remember the moments. There were those emerging silent and astounding from slow dramatic builds. There were others that enfold the audience in their communal power. Still others transported us wholly from our everyday world to uncharted places or long ago times. And, now, let's remember those moments that were stolen.

There was that magnificent pivotal point with Compagnie Hervé Koubi. Well into an hour of their show, the sculptured male dancers gathered en masse to elevate a sole dancer, who reached one elegant, chiseled arm ever higher toward the beam of light above, a staggering moment of unity in a work that explores how cultures converge.

That is, until the cell phone blared insistent, so jarringly breaking a striking collective rapture that it caused the Gaillard audience to audibly moan. Yes, the pre-show, dulcet-toned recording of Nigel Redden, the festival's general director, had sounded, politely reminding all to check and shut off devices, but had gone unheeded — with this moment the casualty.

Another one got away during Program V of Chamber Music, after the ever convivial artistic director Geoff Nuttall made great fanfare over an odd duck of an instrument on the Dock Street Theatre stage, an outsize, long-necked lute that looked to be a mashup of a bass and a guitar. Nuttall cheerily explained that the so-called theorbo was the it-string among the 19th-century suburban youth playing basso continuo in Baroque orchestras.

He introduced the musician holding it, Paul Holmes Morton, to demonstrate the theorbo's subtle charms. As the artist settled into a gentle song written by Giovanni G. Kapsberger in 1640, we were carried away to that majestic early Baroque period, imagining parlors and patrons enjoying the piece. That is, until a certain rock-and-roll ringtone rained down on the tender tune, utterly overwhelming it. Ever upbeat and gracious, Nuttall offered his own mea culpa, having neglected to give the cell phone reminder, topped off with a humorous anecdote involving an Emerson String Quartet member and an alarm watch.

Then there was The Fever, the soft-spoken rumination on community and connection from the theater company 600 Highwaymen. For the production, Woolfe Street Playhouse was configured as a stage surrounded on all four sides by audience seats. It was soon clear that we would all be rising at various times from these seats to join in, mirroring gestures, moving in unison, reaching out to others, and standing alone. It might have been the most loving, least cringe-inducing deployment of audience participation I have ever fallen prey to.

Adjusting to our new reality where our service may at any time be requested, many among us happily volunteered, and a new social contract formed between us. It was, however, soon compromised by a glaring white screen, glowing as clearly as a broken promise. A company member addressed it post haste, quietly approaching its owner and, after a subdued conversation, the phone darkened.

Over at Simons Recital Hall for the dynamic tenor saxophone and piano duo of Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson, audiences were greeted by Wells Fargo Jazz host and jazz-great-about-town Quentin Baxter, mobile device in hand. He copped to the fact that it was currently vibrating, and asked that we all join him in turning ours off. It seemed to have worked, with the artists making it through an entirely absorbing Thelonious Monk number and an original one composed by Iverson specifically to test Turner's celebrated quick saxophone chord changes, among others.

The two then shifted to "Showdown," which Iverson set up as that moment in battle when two opposing soldiers come face to face, and must consider how different their take on one another may be in other circumstances. For me, it called to mind the Thomas Hardy poem, "The Man He Killed."

In the exquisite hands of Turner and Iverson, we were lulled into an achingly intimate moment of communion, reflecting on the abject tragedy of the human condition, forlorn and deep as the sea. I felt my heart swell up to my throat, tears well and drop. That is, of course, until the old tried-and-true dog-barking tone snapped me right out of all my eternal woe and back into 21st-century boneheadedness.

click to enlarge Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson presented a captivating performance … until a cellphone rang in the audience - WILLIAM STRUHS
  • William Struhs
  • Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson presented a captivating performance … until a cellphone rang in the audience

There were similarly lit screens, accompanied by relentless chatter, between two patrons at the vibrant, Beirut-based Caracalla Dance Theatre's One Thousand and One Nights, as if they were planning where to meet up with friends for a post-show drink. I would not have thought it possible to compete with the beaming, bedazzled dancers and the CGI-enhanced spectacle applied to these famed Middle Eastern tales, but I had another thing coming. (No worries, though, I will never unsee this production.)

Stealing far more than a moment was the thrusting arm one seat over, videotaping quirky Pay No Attention to the Girl, an altogether different take on the tales from the Brooklyn-based Target Margin. There, the patron had clearly heeded the title of the show, rather than paying attention to the explicit request of the cast member that audience members forego recording.

I'm not mounting any high horse. That's sure to prove a self-fulfilling prophecy, with some perfect pre-show storm conspiring to distract me from that task. I so fear that show-savaging, mortifying moment that I forever fumble in my bag before curtain, checking and rechecking — and I'd place bets that this very routine will be my undoing, with me one day pushing the wrong button. I'm just kindly asking you, ladies and gentlemen, to please turn off all electronic devices, so that we may all enjoy each and every hardwon moment of the show.

Speaking of perfect storms, in the end, Mother Nature asserted herself as the greatest disruptor of them all, chasing hip-hop artist Benny Starr off the finale stage at Riverfront Park and corralling patrons under a packed, puddling pavilion, where they amiably awaited news on headliner Curtis Harding. There, they were free to track the green swirls representing the weather front on their cell phones, sharing updates, and snapping soggy remembrances.

And, speaking of finales, this last Spoleto overview marks my own at Charleston City Paper, a tough gig to part with, propelled by a new opportunity. The past three years of considering the arts with this paper's fine, kind, culturally savvy staff and its engaged, sharp readers has been deeply rewarding and nothing short of life-changing. Thanks to all of you who train an eye on Charleston's ever-shifting, all-important arts scene. I'll see you in lobbies soon. I'll be the one nervously, repeatedly switching off my phone.

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