Review: The Universal Language of Romantic Composers

“The Universal Language of Romantic Composers” kicked off Spotlight Concert Series in Piccolo Spoleto Festival on May 23. Consisting of three pieces composed by Schubert, Myaskovsky and Fauré, the one-hour concert was performed by two pairs of couples: local artists Micah Gangwer (violin) and Rachel Gangwer (viola), along with James Waldo (cello) and Alyona Aksyonova (piano) who are based in New York City.

These three works by Austrian, Russian and French composers vary in style from one to the other, even though they are under the same general genre of “romanticism.”

Although it is an unfinished composition, “String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 471” shows Schubert’s sense in mastering the romantic style. Written at the age of nineteen, the String Trio stands out with a delightful gorgeous atmosphere. If must be compared to something, it tastes like sparkling lemonade. This piece breathes energy, and actually, as we were so close to the musicians, their breath could be heard during the performance, all at the same time between rhythms.

Myaskovsky’s “Sonata for cello and piano No.2 in a minor, Op. 81” was finished in 1948, near the end of the composer’s life. It is highly emotional at a time when romanticism was out of fashion. Facing with all sorts of problems, Russia was trying to recover from the trauma of World War II. Sorrowful and heavy, the first movement is filled with deep mutters and outpourings. And then, in the following two movements, power comes in. Waldo’s cello and Aksyonova’s piano led alternately, and accompanied each other. The couple was featured in Piccolo Spoleto last year, performing the “Rachmaninoff Sonata for cello and piano.”

Waldo introduced Fauré’s “Piano Quartet No.2 in g minor, Op.45” and called it a roller-coaster with conversation of strings and the piano. He said there are too many melodies to track. He also described it as dramatic romanticism, cool and colorful. The performers changed smiles and obviously enjoyed playing together. Piano became more and more prominent during this period and the combination with strings made a beautiful ending to the program.

14 chamber music concerts will be presented in Spotlight Concert Series through Friday, June 6. See the completed schedule at http://www.piccolospoleto.com/?cat=17

Insher Pan is a Goldring Arts journalist from Syracuse University.

 

SPAMALOT! – Review

After the second trip to Woolfe Street Playhouse I didn’t think I’d ever get to see SPAMALOT. You see, it was sold out. Both nights.

But third time’s the charm, as they say. I finally got a chance to sit in the audience and hear the music queue up from the stage side of the large wooden doors separating the audience from the lobby. It wasn’t long before I got to see firsthand why the show had been sold out for the first two nights of its run.

SPAMALOT is a musical comedy based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a spoof on the legends of King Arthur. SPAMALOT differs from the movie in many ways, which makes the play a unique experience.

The first thing you notice when you get past those large doors is the space around the theatre. The space is intimate and comfortable, projecting a sense of being at home (although this space comes with a bar in the back). The set design was simple and well-constructed. A castle facade served as the point of entry for a number of locales visited by the cast.

The production at Woolfe Street Playhouse featured a talented cast that took on the ridiculous nature of SPAMALOT with enthusiasm and joy. King Arthur (Josh Wilhoit) and the Lady of the Lake (Becca Anderson) stood out in particular for their comedic timing and powerful singing.

But they only had one role. Robbie Thomas had four. Thomas performed as Lancelot, a Knight of Ni, a French Taunter and Tim. Each role was handled with the necessary hilarity of SPAMALOT and left you walking out still singing, His name is Lancelot/And in tight pants a lot/He likes to dance a lot.

Lara Allred’s choreography utilized the intimate space well. My field of vision always had something to enjoy as the principle cast, Laker Girls and Ensemble Knights “rode horses,” danced and spun about.

With six more shows to catch I wouldn’t be surprised if their track record of sold-out shows continues. Hopefully you won’t have to make the trip three times like I did, but I will say that it is worth it.

Produced By: Village Repertory
Shows: May 24, 30, 31, June 4, 6 at 7:00pm; June 1 at 2:00pm; June 7at 8:00pm
Venue: Woolfe Street Playhouse, 34 Woolfe Street
Admission: $35 adults, $30 seniors, $25 students

 

“1963″

Handholding: white girl, black boy

One of the difficulties of dealing with important subjects in a historical context is the tendency to make problems feel like they’re a thing of the past. Films like “The Help” sanitize racism, turning a history of violence and pain into a feeble, self-important dramedy and a deeply entrenched-issue into a simple triumph-over-adversity narrative. The strength of “1963,” the Judy Simpson Cook play now running at Threshold Repertory Theatre, is that it does try to deal with some of the root causes and doesn’t downplay the pain felt by the characters.

The play follows three families in 1963 North Carolina. Molly (Eden Teichman) is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a local principal Ezra (Mark Gorman), who’s concerned about the violence and anger that might come from the inevitable desegregation of their town. Ezra and his wife, Sarah Jane (Kristen Kos), are tolerant people for their time, but neither have tried to take a stand against bigotry. Ezra’s brother Zeke (Mike Kordek) is a blowhard lawyer who claims desegregation is the worst thing that can happen to the south while his wife, Laura (Margaret Nyland), mostly stays silent.

Molly, meanwhile, befriends James (Maurice McPherson), a bright African-American boy who tutors her in algebra. James wants to take part in the sit-ins and marches heating up around the country, and his mother Lou (Michele Powe) encourages him, but his father, Joe (Kyle Taylor), forbids it, fearing the worst will happen to his son.

“1963″ is sometimes too pat in its depiction of redemption and young idealism trumping old reticence, and the use of algebra as a metaphor for equality is clunky. Yet the cast is consistently strong in their portrayals of shifting attitudes towards race relations, from Zeke’s shift from hypocrisy to advocacy to Ezra’s continued struggle to take action. The play is never more effective, however, than when Joe and Lou take center.

Taylor is an extremely fit man, and he has a a commanding voice and presence. Joe is a character too frightened by what could happen to his family to take action against what he knows is wrong. It makes for a fascinating combination of actor and role, turning Joe into a man who has to contain his own strength in order to keep his loved ones safe. Powe’s spirited yet wise take on Lou, meanwhile, shows a woman who’s ready to fight but also completely aware of what the consequences are. Whenever either of the two tell their son or their white friends about the terrible things they’ve experienced, the play takes on startling immediacy, cutting through the earlier earnestness to find something far more direct.

Not just toy action figures

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Review of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Pure Theatre.

Wrestlers can be so touchy, can’t they?

After all, millions watch them whine on TV every Monday night, lamenting over a championship loss or bitterly promising revenge.

Pure Theatre’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,”—a Piccolo Spoleto Festival presentation—gives a comically in-depth look at what lives behind the Lucha libres, groin-hugging tights and politically incorrect pseudonyms, like “The Fundamentalist.”

The Fundamentalist, mind you, is a radical Muslim. And when partnered with Che Chavez Castro, a Mexican border-jumper who leeches off the system (not my words) and also very anti-United States, the amoral marketing schemes of a Caucasian American pastime shine through.

At least, that’s what Everett K. Olson, the owner of THE Entertainment, thinks. “Wrestling fans don’t speak Spanish,” he says to Mace, one of the two wrestling personas adopted by the charming Michael Smallwood, when he suggests that can try to speak Spanish for one of his characters.

There’s a reason that this play, written by Kristoffer Diaz, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama in 2010. Diaz effectively and grippingly deconstructs a testosterone-laden sport and shows that these men—bulging muscles (though not always the case) and tattoos aside—are able to look past their own stereotypes. The only exception is Chad Deity, played by the rightfully holier-than-thou Christian Duboise, who embodies his character both inside and outside of the ring.

Still, it’s captivating to see what is behind the persona of wrestlers, moral pinings included. For Mace, wrestling is an art form, and he’s got a story to tell.

Director Sharon Graci’s steady hand throughout the production leaves just enough room for mystery to blossom throughout the performance. At times, Diaz’s text is completely predictable—diatribes on the less-than-sensitive racial ignorance in the biz give the piece little wiggle room, leaving us for hungering for a little more justice throughout—and Graci, along with the cast of six, presents a satisfying conversation.

The show is almost entirely done in what looks to be a 10-by-10 foot wrestling ring. By the time Act II comes round, body slamming and clotheslining are much appreciated. And, these guys throw each other around as savagely, and almost as believably, as the pros on TV.

The technical aspects of “Chad Deity” (designed by Charlie Thiel) are impressive. The gaudy music and self-glorifying videos that accompany a wrestler as he makes his entrance and the behind-the-ring trash talking are all documented on two screens.

It turns out that wrestlers have feelings too and they want to be seen as more than just plastic figurines.

Piccolo Poetry Walk

In addition to Piccolo Spoleto festival goers attending the Sundown Poetry Series, they may also take part in the Charleston Poetry Walk sponsored by the Poetry Society of South Carolina.

The walk takes festival goers on an hour-long journey through downtown Charleston to see historic places where poets were once inspired by. “We have such a rich heritage of poets from and/or influenced by their time in South Carolina,” said Mary H. Harris, coordinator of the walk. ” It is great fun to let visitors and locals know a little more about them and hear their words.”

The walk starts at 125 Meeting St. and has several times to join starting at 10 a.m. Admission is $12.

Natalia Khoma Presents Bach’s Solo Cello Suites (1-3)

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After last year’s presentation of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, Natalia Khoma brought it to Piccolo Spoleto again, this time at First Presbyterian Church.
For the concert on May 29, she played the first three suites of the six. Her interpretation was rich and colorful. Her skills allowed her to add layers, change volumes and vary tempos while performing. All these, integrated with her graceful appearance, made her even more charming.

Khoma, a native Ukrainian, is a renowned cellist and a cello professor at College of Charleston. Among her competition wins is the Budapest Pablo Casals Competition, named after the Spanish cellist who played a crucial role in popularizing the Bach cello suites.

These suites were largely unknown until Casals recorded a full version of all six in 1939. They then became a peak that seemingly every cello maestro tries to reach at some point in their career.

Unlike Casals’ deep interpretation of the Prelude of Suite No. 1, Khoma’s playing is brisk and absorbing. Her first note in Menuet—bright, quick and forte—was a potent contrast to the mournful Sarabande. Her refreshing articulation of the beginning was joined by an elastic and elegant reinvention of it in terms of melody and sound intensity. It enriched the acoustics and added layers to the suite.

The second suite in D minor, in contrast to the first one, is darker. The lines lingered in her strings, her fingers, the hall and the church. The mournful notes were like endless sadness and gloom. However, the pace in the Allemande was unexpected. In her interpretation, the lines and notes plunged forward in an incredibly fast tempo that still captured every nuance.

Yet the Courante was somehow even speedier. With greater contrast in volume and pitch in phrases, the emotion became so fierce that when the final crescendo came, you felt the agony and drama falling on the audience. During this suite, Khoma kept wiping the sweat off her head and fixing her hair between movements. Her dress strap also fell off her shoulder, which seemed to distract her. (The strap fell from time to time throughout the concert.)

After going backstage for a while, Khoma came back and played the third suite in C major. Her melodic short notes leaped over the fluid bass. While the strong resonance in the First Presbyterian Church sometimes blurred the piece’s echoes, the emotions were amplified. Khoma’s seamless playing then integrated the layers, the volumes and the richness of sound in the Gigue. With successive fortes near the end, she ended this journey with an intensified and prolonged coda.

Music and words from the cast of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”

 Andrew Jackson, the Rockstar president, makes his first visit to Charleston via The Village Repertory Co. at its new home in the Woolfe Street Playhouse. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which transforms America’s 7th president into an emo lead singer, has never before been performed in the Charleston area. Go behind the curtain with this audio preview of the show.

Will Haden plays Andrew Jackson and sings “I’m not that Guy.” In his professional directorial debut, Josh Wilhoit styles the musical around the idea of politics as celebrity. Becca Anderson plays Rachel Jackson, Andrew’s wife, and sings “The Great Compromise.” Corey Webb serves as musical director and sings “Second Nature,” a reflective song near the end of the show.

If you go

  • When: Thursday May 30 – June 22
  • Where: Woolfe Street Playhouse, 34 Woolfe St.
  • Tickets: $36

“God of Carnage” Would Wreak Better Havoc with Age-Appropriate Actors

Review of “God of Carnage,” part of the Stelle di Domani series.

It takes a minute to get used to seeing a pair of college students discuss their 11-year old son.

As part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the College of Charleston’s Department of Theatre and Dance presents “God of Carnage,” Jasmina Reza’s dialogue dense 90-minute production. “Carnage” traps two sets of parents in a living room as they deal with their sons’ playground scuffle. Christopher Hampton translated Reza’s tight French into equally tight English, bringing a whole new meaning to “fighting words.” But, all these words put a lot of pressure on the actors.

The cast of "God of Carnage"

The cast of “God of Carnage.”

Margaret Nyland and Peter Spearman play Veronica and Michael Novak, parents of Henry, who gets whacked in the face with a stick. Nyland is a University of Virginia graduate taking classes at the College of Charleston. She’s older than her undergraduate cast mates, which really works to her advantage. She moves and sounds like a harried young mother standing up for her son after a child’s fight. Spearman, as her nebbish husband, nails the hesitant speech of a spouse who is clearly not the dominant one in the marriage. Although only a college junior, Spearman acts old enough. He employs that particular brand of fatherly pride when he learns his son has a little gaggle of boys who follow him around like a gang. Novak’s boy is a ringleader in a way that Novak hasn’t been since before he got married.

College of Charleston senior Diana Biffle and junior Christian Persico play the other married couple, Annette and Alan Raleigh. The Raleighs’ son, Benjamin, hit Henry with a stick because Henry wouldn’t let him join his gang. Biffle and Persico are clearly college actors. They look young and sound young. Benjamin would more likely be their kid brother than their son. It doesn’t help that the Raleighs’ dialogue in “Carnage” naturally calls for an annoyed attachment to Benjamin. “He’s a savage,” Alan declares to explain away his son’s behavior in the park.

Costume designer McKenna DuBose doesn’t help the dilemma when she employs a hackneyed trick: make a young girl look older by suctioning her luscious hair into a dour bun, then add glasses. It’s the same trick used in movies to make a pretty girl look like a dork. Because we’re so used to it, we become less swayed to believe the design. Biffle is left looking like a cute kid toddling around in her mother’s heels. The same goes for Persico who wears a trench coat that swallows him whole. He fishes around in the large pockets of his trousers every time his blackberry rings, reminding us that he is as uncomfortable in these grown men’s pants as he is with bandying about legal advice over the phone. Alan works as a corporate litigator.

What does end up saving “Carnage” is when Nyland, Spearman, Biffle and Persico all work together, talking on top of each other and exhausting their characters at the same time. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts in this production. When Spearman’s Michael breaks out a bottle of perfectly aged rum, a catalyst among college kids as much as full grown adults, the show turns quite nicely.

Alliances shift from husband and wife batting for the same team, to the two husbands playing against the two wives. Of course, Hampton’s translated dialogue dictates this shift, but without the clever chemistry of the core four actors, you wouldn’t have felt the necessary comedy in “God of Carnage.”

Costuming the Presidents

For the past 20 years, Julie Ziff has been behind the scenes of the Charleston theater community. More appropriately, behind the seams. For Ziff, costuming shows has become a passion since retiring from her day job in New York City years ago. Knowing that she was wanted to go into costuming, Ziff took theater classes at The New School in NYC and shipped down to Charleston to start her new career—one that keeps her incredibly busy. Currently, the designer is costuming two shows for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”  The good news, she may be busy, but it’s easy to find her: in the costume shop.

How did you get involved with this theatre?
Julie Ziff: I did a show for Keely Enright (founder and producing artistic director of The Woolfe Street Playhouse)  when we were downtown at the Midtown Theatre and then when they decided to start their own theater company, she asked me to come and work with them.

How did you get into costume design?
Ziff: Well I moved down here from New York City and I retired from my day job. And, right before I left I went to The New School and I took an acting class, a set design class and a directing class because I wanted to do costumes, but I thought I don’t even know the language. So, I took those classes right before I left and when I came down here, my younger daughter was in the theater so I started making costumes for the theater company she was with. I have done costumes for almost everyone in town and then I met Keely and Dave and started working for them full time.

What was the daily wear of the 19th century politician and their cohorts? What were people wearing back then?
Ziff: Suits. Well, you know, clothes haven’t changed too much over the years. So, it’d be a shirt and tie, and a vest and a jacket with maybe a hat.

What about the women?

Julie Ziff (right) and Keely Enright (left, producting artistic director of the Woolfe Street Playhouse).

Julie Ziff (right) and Keely Enright (left, producting artistic director of the Woolfe Street Playhouse).


Ziff: Well, a dress. I’m not sure if it was a bustle dress at that point or just a hoop skirt, but it was big clothes and a lot of layers, too.

Have you interpreted the costumes from the original Broadway show?
Ziff: We of course have that available as a resource and since it is such a recent show, it has more of an influence on us than if we were just creating it from scratch, but we always like to do our own thing.

So how did you do your own thing?
Ziff: Well, Keely, Josh [Wilhoit, Director of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson] and I met together and we talked about what the colors are, what is the feeling we want here? I meet all of the actors so I sort of know body sizes and what they look like, so it  springs from that. We think about what works in our theater because we’re not off Broadway, we’re not Broadway; we have a stage that isn’t deep.

What do you think is the biggest challenge when designing costumes?
Ziff: In this type of theater where you have maybe a four-to-six week run, you have to make the costume substantial enough so it will last the run but you can’t afford to make it substantial enough so that it’s really there forever.

Have you ever been inspired to veer away from a traditional costume and make it your own?
Ziff: Yes, they let me do that a lot. It’s very collaborative here.

What has been your craziest costume designing experience?
Ziff: Maybe “Urinetown” was one of our more creative from a costume standpoint because we just did all black, white and grey and we used red as the accent color. Everybody had something red.

What was the reasoning behind that?
Ziff: The set was a cinderblock outhouse that they were using and we just wanted to make it more dramatic. It was such a great musical and we wanted to be able to pull on the drama of it.

What is your favorite part about doing costume design?
Ziff: Every play is its own entity. You have about a month to research everything, decide what you’re going to do and then you have two weeks to make them and then they’re up for a month and you start all over. So, it’s very creative and very fun.

Laughing at Shakespeare

Review of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Theatre 99.

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” elevates comedy’s ability to communicate intellectual ideas. But it also challenges the audience to obtain a prerequisite knowledge before enjoying nearly two hours of cross-dressing, slapstick humor.

This production of “Complete Works,” which different companies play across the United States, will not disappoint. The play sails through Shakespeare’s 37 plays while maintaining respect for the playwright’s significance to Anglo-American culture.

Greg Tavares, Steven Shields and Timmy Finch star and direct this production, which plays at Theatre 99 as part of the 2013 Piccolo Fringe series. The actors display an impressive multi-faceted talent for acting, singing and choreography. But their simultaneous mastery of comedic timing and enunciation worthy of the Bard are regrettably underappreciated – sidelined by cheers for their falling down and theatrical screams.

The overwhelming majority of the audience has had at least one interaction with Shakespeare, according to a show of hands at the start of the performance. Yet the intensity of their laughter spiked at moments when one of the male performers feigned discomfort over kissing another playing a woman. For an audience that cheered at a reference condemning South Carolina’s homophobic marriage laws, such behavior was inadvertently reactionary. Knowledge of Shakespeare evidently does not contribute enough to cultural enlightenment.

This was not the lone instance of questionable audience reaction.

Disconcertingly, a mention about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway produced an outburst of chuckles. Some in the audience may have been under the impression that this factual statement was an anachronistic joke about the Academy Award winning actress. But to be fair, Adolf Hitler found his way into a monologue, and moments of confusion were bound to occur.

Kevin Williamson, theater critic for The New Criterion, found similarly ill-timed laughter troubling at this year’s Broadway production of “Macbeth.” This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it should make us question humor’s relationship to drama.

To borrow from the design of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London: our culture is certainly not in the pits of Hell, but we are not soaring in Heaven’s skies either.