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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spoleto Update: Festival gears up for second weekend

ODD JOBS: Mike Daisey will perform his controversial monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at this years Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Ursa Waz
  • ODD JOBS: Mike Daisey will perform his controversial monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at this year's Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston's Spoleto Festival is gearing up for its second weekend of shows, and as always the rotating roster of performances ensures that each segment of the performing arts festival will have a slightly different character.

The term "arts festival" may bring to mind images of ribbon-dancers, face-painting and bric-a-brac sold from tents. We have nothing against face-painting, ribbon-dancers or even bric-a-brac, but "arts festival" doesn't quite capture the amazing vibe in Charleston during Spoleto. Audiences go to performances with a certain anticipation and leave venues still excited for more rather than with a sense of closure. The quality of the performances, the intimate venues all in close proximity, and the way the entire city seems engaged with the festival all contribute to the unique atmosphere, making Spoleto one of the best fests in the nation: There's nothing remotely like it in the Southeast. (It's hard to even think of a close second). Organizers bring in pieces of the coolest arts shizzle from around the world - Beijing, London, Japan, New York - and offer it in a condensed two-week buffet of awesome.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: London-based theatre troupe 1927 offers an intriguing mix of live performance and animation in The Animals and Children Took to the Streets.
  • TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: London-based theatre troupe 1927 offers an intriguing mix of live performance and animation in "The Animals and Children Took to the Streets."
Speaking of awesome, the London theatre troupe 1927 performed The Animals and Children Took to the Streets last night at the Memminger Auditorium, giving audiences an intriguing combination of live theatre and animation, a charming mash-up of Brechtian allegory, German expressionist cinema, and Eartha Kitt at the Carlisle. The show tells the story of the residents of Bayou Mansion, a slum in a city of the rich. Things erupt into revolutionary violence as a generation of children organize into misbehaving gangs before being quelled by a sinister mayor who watches over the city from his penthouse. The integration of live actors with projected animation is inventive and smoothly done: the story is fantastic in its openness and lack of grating political message - is it a timely political allegory? an amusing bauble? a throwback to another era's aesthetic? - and the constantly shifting on-stage visuals are always wonderful to look at from moment to moment. The show continues through June 3.

Projections in general seem big this year. Characters pop out of screens alive with images in Animals and Children; eerie shadows convey action in the fantastic contemporary chamber opera Feng Yi Ting; abstract evocations of celestial movement fill a giant screen behind the singers in Philip Glass' opera Kepler; and integrating video and live dance performance is central to next week's A Crack in Everything by zoe|juniper. I'm not normally a fan of screens in live performance - I spend all day in front of a screen and usually don't go to live theatre to sit in front of another one - but the excellent and innovative use of them at Spoleto has me rethinking that preconception.

The performances are also mostly kept short and sweet. Feng Yi Ting clocks in at about 45 minutes, Kepler comprises two swift acts, and Animals and Children is just over an hour, the length of most of the performances this year. I've loved the shows so far, and they all seem just the right length. Those favoring the slowly unfolding, total immersion in another world that comes from a longer show will probably be in a minority here.

Tonight I check out opening night of famous talker Mike Daisey's show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The little show recently became the subject of a national controversy, and surely the provocative monologist will have plenty to say about it.

Also playing tonight at the gorgeous outdoor venue The Cistern is Boston-based roots band Joy Kills Sorrow, one of a number of acts which seem designed to draw in a younger demographic to Spoleto events. The very next night ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro - yes, of YouTube "My Ukelele Gently Weeps" fame - plays the same venue.

SWEET SUITE: Alisa Weilersteins broken cello string led to a charming moment that was pure Spoleto.
  • William Struhs
  • SWEET SUITE: Alisa Weilerstein's broken cello string led to a charming moment that was pure Spoleto.
Afternoon chamber concerts continue at the Dock Street Theatre throughout the festival. The one I checked out on Monday impressed on so many levels. A Beethoven wind quartet was particularly stunning and felt like a rare treat. I was especially intrigued when cellist Alisa Weilerstein broke a string during a performance of the intense Suite Italienne by Stravinsky. As she ducked backstage to fix the problem, audience members made use of the unexpected break by standing up and sharing stories about various mishaps they'd seen at concerts attended around the world: a seat collapsing under Yo-Yo Ma, a series of broken strings for Itzhak Perlman and so on. "Sorry for interrupting," Weilerstein joked when she came back on stage to finish her performance. It was a lovely moment, a combination of the down-home and the sophisticated, the communal and the deliciously odd, amazing art and comfortable proximity to it, that perfectly encapsulates Spoleto.

Ahead this weekend: Cedar Lake Ballet opening Friday night and the way sold-out k.d. lang concert at the Gaillard Auditorium. The festival continues through June 10. For more info check Spoleto.

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