Spoleto doesn’t just provide jobs for out-of-town performers. Sometimes, a company throws local actors a bone too. Sometimes, one of those actors gets to play god.
For the marionette opera Philemon and Baucis, two Charleston thesps have been brought on board to voice some of the marionettes. Curtis Worthington and Josh Wilhoit are both long-serving members of the city’s stage scene, and they’re having a blast working with Carlo Colla and Sons. Worthington plays Mercury; Wilhoit has the choice role of Jupiter, the supreme being.
I asked Wilhoit how he landed his plum position. “They called me in to audition for it,” he says. “I read a monologue from The Scottish Play.” (Since he’s an actor, Wilhoit can’t say the name of the Shakespeare play he read from. It would be bad luck). The audition was recorded and sent to Italy for the heads of the company to hear. They contacted him the next day and offered him the part.
So how does an actor voice a pint-sized marionette? Wilhoit wasn’t sure. “I had no idea what to expect,” he says. “I know they’ve done this opera before but never with live voices, only with recordings. It’s the first time with live musicians and actors. Also, they’ve done it in Italian before. This time it’s being sung in German, with dialogue in translated English.”
Despite how that sounds, Philemon and Baucis is no stodgy Europudding. “The company is incredible,” Wilhoit says, “so easy to work with. The level of control they have over their puppets is outstanding.” He and Worthington spent one week rehearsing. At first they were able to simply run through the story with the actors, but then the marionettes were added. “The first time we did a run-through, we sat in the front row and watched as they performed. All of us had a childlike fascination with the unexpected things that would happen. Different puppets would come across the stage — there’s a huge parade of gods, tons of puppets. It’s so intricately done.”
The actors still have a script to help them follow the action, but now they’re in the orchestra pit with an Italian conductor and American opera singers. “We can kind of see what’s going on,” says Wilhoit hesitantly. “Most of it is timed so we pause when the marionettes need to move or when there’s a scene change.” Although they don’t do any singing or string-pulling, the two local actors have obviously been welcomed by Carlo Colla and Sons.
At the end of the opera they walk out on stage and take a bow with their counterparts, Jupiter jumping into Wilhoit’s arms to give him a hug. “A lot of emotion is conveyed by the puppets,” he says. “It’s a pretty cool artistic experience.” And not a bad one for the audience, either. It seems that the marionettes bring out that childlike sense of wonder in everyone.
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