Sunday, June 09, 2002

Spoleto highlights good theater


Ghost stories, South African folk, ninjas take stages

By Jackie Demaline, jdemaline@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CHARLESTON, S.C. — Spoleto Festival USA, which ends the 17-day run of its 25th year today, presented a world of performing arts. Over a three-day weekend last week, here's what picked me up and carried me away:

        • Ghost Lovers was a one-act, two-character, comic Chinese opera about a young woman who returns from the afterlife to retrieve her clownish lover. The joys of the program were the vivid performances of Qian Yi and Guo Yi, who opened the doors to an art form in which characterization and movement are all. Director Chen Shi-Zheng and his actors started from classic Kunqu technique and found new avenues to reach a contemporary American audience.

        • Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries is a South African folk opera based on the medieval Mystery Plays, moving the stories of the Old and New Testaments to a rural South African setting with performances underscored by percussion — oil drums and plastic garbage containers numbered among the instruments. Heart-felt performances, beautiful a cappella choruses, and a look at life half-a-world away made for a compelling evening.

        • Afterplay by Brian Friel (Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa) is the kind of work that lives best in a festival setting. Mr. Friel had the clever idea to take two characters from Anton Chekhov — Andrei, brother to the Three Sisters, and Sonya, niece to Uncle Vanya, and catch up with them 20 years later by plopping them down in a rundown Moscow cafe in the 1920s.

        Mr. Friel manages to capture Chekhov's rueful tone, although he got lost in back story. Ultimately he's no Tom Stoppard, who turned a similar folly into a masterpiece with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

        Still, it's a pleasure to see a good playwright explore new territory, and Penelope Wilton and John Hurt were marvelous.

        • Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight is a magical new puppet work by Ping Chong. His work often tours; it's worth keeping an eye out for this one.

        Obon is inspired by the Japanese Buddhist festival during which souls of the dead are believed to return to their families. These are three riveting ghost stories told with great beauty and originality.

        The most chilling tale is about a dying wife who takes long and grisly revenge on her faithless husband's beautiful young concubine under a cherry blossom tree. Actress Jennifer Kato, as the concubine forced to take on a terrible burden, is splendid as she interacts with life-size puppets.

        • Three Tales is a new digital video opera by Steve Reich (music) and Beryl Korot (video) that has nothing less than the advances of 20th-century technology as its subject. Mr. Reich's score is urgent as the documentary action, from headlines to interviews on a 30-foot screen, flashes forward over the course of 65 minutes from the Hindenburg disaster to atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll to the cloning of Dolly.

        The audience is left to marvel how science advanced from a zeppelin to the atomic bomb in less than a generation. As the millennium turned, one scientist makes a persuasive argument for the relationship between genes and machines.

        Ms. Korot digitally alters some of the Bikini images so they are Gaugin-like, but as film from the testing plays out, horror creeps up your spine. It seems like dumb luck that the military didn't blow up the planet with their experiments.

        It's an engrossing hour.

        Three Tales stage director is Nick Mangano, on faculty at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It would be wonderful if, after the opera spends the next year being performed at festivals from New York to Berlin to Hong Kong, there would be a way to show it at UC.

        • The City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs produces sponsors Piccolo Spoleto, now in its 24th year as a fringe festival surrounding Spoleto events. This year featured 700 events on the streets, in parks, churches, theaters. Theater events came from the Montreal Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Festival as well as Seattle, but the hottest ticket was the return of Tiny Ninja Theatre.

        Tiny Ninja performs noontime Shakespeare, this year Romeo and Juliet, with, yes, inch-high plastic ninjas on a briefcase-sized stage. Much bigger is Larger than Life: A Second Story Show with billboard-sized artwork mounted high on the facades of some downtown Charleston buildings. Very cool.

       Information about Spoleto can be found at www.spoletousa.org.
       

       



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