Shakespeare’s Globe has left the Dock Street, Taylor Mac has packed up his golden headdress, and Geoff Nuttall and his merry band of chamber musicians have gone their separate ways. In other words, Spoleto Festival USA 2015 has wrapped up, leaving everything from sublime inspiration (A Streetcar Named Desire, Carlos Aguirre, Romeo and Juliet) to existential horror (Decasia, When It Rains) in its wake.
Overall, this was a great festival. Better than great — of all the 24 performances I saw, there was just one event I hated, the experimental film Decasia, and only a few I found forgettable. The opera Veremonda, l’Amazzone di Aragona was one of them; another was the first concert by Rita Marcotulli and Luciano Biondini, and I am told that they really hit their stride during their second performance, so that may have been purely a matter of timing.
The rest of the shows gave me either something to love, something to think about, or, in a few very special cases, both. In the first category we’ve got Romeo and Juliet, pianist Carlos Aguirre, and A Streetcar Named Desire (and sure, they gave me plenty to think about as well, but my overriding reaction was emotional).
In the second, we have shows including Paradise Interrupted, What Moves You, and When It Rains — and actually, Decasia fits here too, as little as I enjoyed the experience. These were performances that broadened my horizons, somehow — I saw innovative new production techniques, or was faced with an intellectual or aesthetic challenge, or was pushed to question my own artistic beliefs.
And that final “both” category is reserved for Taylor Mac’s Songs of the American Right performance, which was not only an entertaining evening, but also forced me to look at biases I didn’t think I had; Musica Nuda, which blended a concert with performance art; and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra’s concert of Tan Dun, Barber, and Sibelius. (There are others in each category, but I’m just hitting the highlights.)
Let’s start, however, with a look at Spoleto’s second week. It began with a bang, or really a screech: the dreaded experimental film Decasia. I say that somewhat facetiously, but it’s true that I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’d watched a clip or two on YouTube and found the music grating and awful to listen to.
And that turned out to be the case, at least to me, especially since during the film screening the soundtrack was played live by the full Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. I noted that before they started, they put in earplugs. That’s a tip-off if there ever was one. I just wish they’d brought some for the audience, too.
As for the film, it’s an hour-long series of clips from black-and-white films that have been damaged to varying degrees. That’s the thrust of the whole thing: we watch scenes, mostly with people in them, that have been transformed by time, age, and neglect into something spooky or unsettling. People are outlined in metallic halos; the blacks and the whites are switched and metalicized, which results in images like a woman whose skin and body are dark, but whose laughing lips are bright white; and in the some of the strangest images, people’s heads seem to come apart and dissolve into smoke. It’s the stuff of nightmares or bad acid trips.
Now, I am not saying that Decasia isn’t a valuable work of art (although I think 30 minutes would be a much more appropriate length). I get that by watching these destroyed scenes, we are — at least I was — forced to think about mortality, temporality, how everything from the people we love to the planet we live on will one day die. Even film, which we always say “immortalizes” people, is not immortal. It falls apart like everything else on earth.
But while most of the scenes unsettled me and made me want to get the heck out of that theater — which I’m certain is the point of the film — there were others that were so avant-garde they were laughable. There was the shot of a C-section, for example, during which the music got hellishly loud and frightening as a baby who, thanks to the damaged film, looks like an alien or devil spawn is pulled out of a woman’s abdomen. Or the shot of two happy kids riding a carousel as film blisters basically eat their heads while the music shifts into this dread-inducing, terrifying cacophany. I mean, seriously? It just felt cheap to me.
Remember that death, decay, and rebirth theme I was exploring at the start of the festival? Well, Decasia was a major score for death’s side. And while I have no problem with death in art — in fact, as I said in my very first Spoleto essay, I think it’s a vital force in the creation of any and all art — I felt that with the exception of a couple of very affecting scenes, Decasia was missing the beauty, the grand vision, that would have made me say at the end, “OK, that was worth it.” As it was, I have to say I agreed with the man who shot out of his seat the second the film was done and yelled “Thank God that’s over!”
Mercifully, the next performance I saw was the purely-for-enjoyment Knee Deep by Casus Circus. There was no serious message here, no comment on the state of mankind or how we’re all slowly coming closer to the end of our days. Instead, four talented acrobats gave us a showcase of unbelievable physical stunts. They reminded us that the human body is capable of incredible things — especially when we trust each other. Hmm, I guess there was a serious message there after all.
When It Rains, the “live action existentialist graphic novel” by Nova Scotia’s 2b theatre company, was, surprisingly, both existentialist and a live-action graphic novel — at least as much as any stage production could be. The entire set, except for two plain office-type chairs, consists of projected shadow-like images — a dining room with a table, windows, and a fan; a bedroom; a small café; a park. At the start of the play, crisp circles spotlight each of the four actors’ heads as their names appear above them, which makes the setup look just like a character intro panel in a comic book.
As When It Rains goes on, text continues to play a large part in the staging, appearing on the plain black backdrop as stage direction, translation, and once as a significant piece of dramatic irony. I found much to like, and more to admire, in this ambitious and dark production, although it didn’t really get to me on an emotional level. Between the staging and the story, the staging was the real reason to see this play.
While my week also contained two other exceptional performances — the rowdy, funny Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre and a chamber music concert that featured an outstanding Shostakovich octet — the winner, for me, was Taylor Mac’s Songs of the American Right, which is part of Mac’s larger project A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. (Note: Mac identifies as queer and prefers the gender pronoun judy.)
Mac’s outrageous drag persona and more outrageous costume, which was a kind of deconstruction of patriotic garb complete with a golden Statue of Liberty headdress, infused the Woolfe Street Playhouse with an infectious energy right from the start. There was no shortage of entertainment throughout the 90-minute show — Mac cracked jokes that ranged from the political to the sharply self-deprecating, while belting out old-timey conservative tunes like “It’s Time for Every Boy to Be a Soldier” and “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Of course, judy appropriates them as judy’s own, twisting the meaning or style in order to subvert the originals.
But funny and informative as all that is, Mac’s appeal goes much deeper than that. Judy is working to build community and change society through the theater, and judy does this by encouraging judy’s audience members to break through their personal boundaries — for example, we were told to find another person of the same gender and dance with them as Mac crooned Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboy.” It sounds like your worst nightmare about audience participation, but it works, thanks to Mac’s superb talent for pushing serious issues without letting the laughs subside.
I’m almost embarrassed to say how completely I bought into Mac’s world — almost, but not quite. That’s because I really believe that no matter how much you think you agree with judy’s politics on gender, or race, or how much you pride yourself on your open-minded, progressive way of looking at the world, we all have little hypocrisies and cracks in our beliefs that need to be challenged if we’re to continue growing as people — or, as Mac says, “dreaming the culture forward.” And that just doesn’t happen often in regular life.
So as much as Decasia was a score for death, Songs of the American Right was a score for the other side — at least on the surface. Because if we really look closely, as any English major (like me) will tell you, death and rebirth in art are just two sides of the same coin. The most obvious illustration of this idea can be found in the puppets of Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre or Carlo Colla & Sons: they die and are reborn every show, given life again by the puppeteers. But take Romeo and Juliet or A Streetcar Named Desire. Even though they deal beautifully with death and decay — the former concerned with death of the physical body, the latter with that of the mind and emotions — each of those productions itself was a glorious reborn version of an old and familiar story. Veremonda, too, was a bold re-envisioning of an opera that, without being championed by conductor Aaron Carpené and Spoleto Festival USA, probably would have remained as good as dead for two or three more centuries.
Now let’s step back even further. Argentine pianist Carlos Aguirre, who performed what I thought was the best concert of the entire festival, is taking the sounds of his native rivers and transmuting them into original compositions. Musica Nuda is taking songs apart, destroying them in a very real sense, and using the remnants to create something totally unique. In Paradise Interrupted, a woman conquers her desires and earthly wants to be reborn into an independent, self-aware individual. And in What Moves You, dancer Lil Buck and cellist Ashley Bathgate managed to break through their own egos and join together in a truly boundless partnership, becoming something bigger than the two of them put together — even if it was just for one piece, “Dance for Me Wallis.” I could go on, but I think we all get the picture.
This is the essence of the arts: they show us the unity of the human experience, and the rich complexity that lies behind binaries like death/life, male/female, old/new. That is art’s real value, and this year’s festival did a bang-up job of driving that home. Let’s hope for another incredible lineup next year. For now, though, I’m all Spoletoed out. If you need me, I’ll be on my couch streaming Gilmore Girls. t