“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.

“El Nino” and Miracles in Drama

Gabriel appears to Mary

Leaving “El Nino,” I felt a bit baffled as to why the production left me feeling detached appreciation more than anything resembling an emotional response.

John Adams’s opera-oratorio is a musically dense work, filled with impressive orchestration, emotional solos for a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, and equally gorgeous material for its chorus and trio of countertenors. It isn’t as if there was a failure in execution, either: the ensemble is remarkable, the orchestra resonant, the conduction by Spoleto Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller strong. And while the opera was not originally written to be staged dramatically, director John La Bouchardiere and company’s choices, from the expressive use of puppets to the fluid transitions from one time period to another, are confident and fully realized.

The opera takes a modern look at the Nativity story, recounting the visitation of Gabriel, the birth of Jesus and his early life, alongside considerations of the miraculous nature of birth, the inevitability of death, and solace through God.

The first half of “El Nino” is primarily from Mary’s perspective, while the second half shifts to highlight the impact of Jesus even from a young age, complete with a set of miracles from Apocryphal books. It’s in the second half of the show where I grew increasingly disengaged with the work while remaining impressed by its staging and score. When I read the excellent review by Yiorgos Vassilandonakis this morning, I found myself agreeing with every bit of praise he had. But I still felt a distance from the production, particularly with the ending, which involves a miracle that’s a logical endpoint thematically but dramatically unsatisfying.

That’s when my issue with “El Nino” hit me: miracles are not dramatically interesting.

I was raised in a Catholic family, and while I don’t practice, I’m fascinated and frequently moved by religious art. And while La Bouchardiere writes in his director’s note that Adams was brought up to believe that biblical stories were metaphors rather than reality, I’m more than willing to accept religious phenomena as reality within the world of a work of art if I’m asked to (it’s no more difficult that accepting that fairies are real in “Peter Pan,” or that gang members spontaneously break out into song and dance in “West Side Story”). With that in mind, I don’t think personal belief systems should be a barrier to accepting “El Nino.”

What is a barrier is my belief in what makes for effective drama: character and action. The greatest dramatic works, from “Hamlet” to “Death of a Salesman,” “Carmen” to “Sweeney Todd,” “Citizen Kane” to “The Godfather,” require characters making active choices that define them and determine the outcome of what happens in the narrative. Even “Oedipus Rex,” in which fate plays an essential role, features Oedipus making the decisions that lead to his downfall.

Miracles, on the other hand, are not about the actions of human beings, but acts of God (or gods) upon people. Spiritually speaking, they inspire awe, emotion, even grand changes in behavior. Dramatically speaking, they turn subjects into objects, leaving people without the ability to stay active in their story. It might be unfair to categorically dismiss the use of miracles in stories, but there’s a reason the term “deus ex machina” is used, more often than not, as a pejorative. In “El Nino,” the active choices of the people in the Nativity story take a backseat to a figure of religious awe (Baby Jesus) capable of solving every conflict they come across in the second act.

Even the religiously themed works that most move me are as rooted in human experience as they are in the miraculous. In spite of its title, “Miracle on 34th Street” showcases characters battling on the behalf of belief rather than letting a higher power take over. “A Christmas Carol” (ghosts, I know, but it’s Christmas and a redemption story in a Christian fashion, so I’m counting it as religious) allows for supernatural forces to take Ebenezer Scrooge through his life, but it’s Scrooge who must choose the path of redemption. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (a contender for the title of “Most Moving Film Ever Made,” in my book) features an act of God to push Jimmy Stewart towards life again, but Stewart must make that choice, and his economic salvation is as much a belated acknowledgement and repayment for a lifetime of good deeds as it is a miracle.

What about actual biblical stories? To me, the two most moving portraits of Christ are Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Pasolini, an atheist with a “nostalgia for belief,” presented the biblical characters not as figures acting out a passion play, but as men making decisions, and stressed the radical nature of Jesus’s teachings. Scorsese’s film, meanwhile, was greeted with a firestorm of controversy, but the film makes the intangible tangible by focusing on the anguish and fear Jesus must have felt as he chose to do what he believed was necessary for humanity’s salvation.

There are certainly exceptions to my belief that miracles and deus ex machina are not dramatic. Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ends with an incredible display of God’s power against forces of evil, while my personal favorite film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” ends on a deus ex machina so unexpected that I dare not reveal it. But the first is specifically about man’s meddling with forces beyond his power, and even here, the death of the villains and salvation of Indiana Jones is determined by respect, or lack thereof, of the power of God and the choice to meddle. And the ending of “Magnolia” is as much postmodern commentary on deus ex machina as it is a moment of unlikely catharsis.

Perhaps this is all beside the point, as “El Nino” was conceived as an opera-oratorio – a concert piece – not as a work of drama. That might mean that a dramatic production of “El Nino,” however skillfully made, is a bit of a folly, a problem of presentation. Or maybe it’s a problem of perspective, and I’m looking at what the work is not rather than what it is. Either way, I walked out of “El Nino” thrilled that so many people were touched by it and disappointed that I wasn’t as well.

Agree or disagree with my take? Were you moved by “El Nino?” I believe any cultural criticism and opinion should be the start of a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’d be glad to hear from those who felt differently and why.

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: And The Winner Is…

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

As it turns out, our shrimp and grits “showdown” wasn’t much of a showdown at all. Even though Nic and I vowed never to speak of what we thought about each bowl until after we wrote and posted each blog, as it turns out, we shared mostly all of the same sentiments. We hated the gravy. We hated the tomatoes. Let’s face it, the only thing our Southern tongues disagreed on was the taste of the shrimp, on occasion.

last blog 2So, we decided that since our tastes were so similar, we would write on sugar packets what we thought was the best and the second best bowl of shrimp and grits. To our surprise (but not really though) we both picked the same number one and number two choice. Which is….

Winner:

1) Hominy Grill - It was pure authenticity that ultimately won out for Hominy Grill. No frills, no extras, just pure unadulterated shrimp and grit flavor proved to be the winning formula, and Hominy Grill brought the noise.

Runner-Up:

2) Swamp Fox Restaurant at the Francis Marion Hotel- While this dish contained gravy, it was the most flavorful, rich, unctuous gravy of the lot, and it provided a deep seafood flavor that enhanced the shrimp. The grits were cooked well and stood up to the thick gravy. Plus, not having those nasty tomatoes sure didn’t hurt the movement.

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So, there y’all have it folks! The best bowl of shrimp and grits from what Nic and I have experienced during our time in Charleston as reporters for the Post and Courier during this year’s annual Spoleto Festival USA. We’ve eaten much more than just good old shrimp and grits -and have enjoyed sharing our meals with you!

-Love, Nic and B

Shrimp and Grits Showdown: Final Round SNOB

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Photo illustration by Nick DeSantis / Photos by Eesha Patkar

Situated on East Bay Street, SNOB, or Slightly North of Broad, brings a little bit of their name into the dining room. More upscale than any of the other restaurants B and I have tried, the same genteel, southern hospitality abounded, ridding itself of any pretension. White table linens and fancy place settings couldn’t take away what was a wholly Southern, down home experience. Final round, ding ding ding! Snob1

Getting right into it, we feasted on cornbread for a good while, waiting for the rest of our party to arrive. Equal parts sweet and savory, it was as close to down home classic southern cornbread as I’ve had since I’ve been in Charleston. Soft and buttery, moist and dense, but not heavy, the cornbread was a perfect golden brown on the outside and maize on the inside. I almost ate too much cornbread and didn’t leave enough room for the real reason why I was there. Almost.

Nic’s picks: The shrimp and grits were served in a large bowl that was almost too large. Portion size was not a problem at SNOB, and of all the places we visited that gave the biggest portions. Gravy and raw tomatoes made another appearance, and it seems like in Charleston they are a recurring character rather than a cameo. Nonetheless, we are intrepid; we carry on. I dug into the grits. The gravy was a little oily, but not as heavy as others I had over the course of the last three weeks. I tried the tomatoes, just for the sake of trying them, and immediately pushed them off to the side. They offer nothing to the dish. Not one single thing is made better by the tomatoes.

The shrimp were the best of any of the places I ate at. They were plump and tender, full of flavor. They were also abundant, something that most places have skimped on. They were perfectly cooked to a nice opaque pink color, not too tough but still providing a nice bite and mouth feel.

snob2The grits were smooth, not too watery, but not too stiff. They had just enough texture and they contained a nice corn flavor, independent from the gravy and other accoutrements. Crispy Tasso ham provided a nice textural element, that crunch that softer dishes so desperately need to break up the monotony. It wasn’t too overpoweringly salty either, which was a nice touch. The smoked sausage was a nice thought, but with the ham and the gravy, it could have been left out altogether and it wouldn’t have been missed. There was a nice garlicky bite to the dish that other restaurants lacked, and it was a nice signature to make the dish their own.

Overall, it was a good plate of food, one of the better dishes we had through our eating tour of Charleston. While a little more upscale, SNOB definitely delivered on that down home, Southern food experience.

B’s business: From the moment the shrimp and grits were served, there was no hiding either one of our distresses at seeing yet another bowl filled to the brim with what else? Gravy and tomatoes.

Almost immediately, I automatically pushed the tomatoes to the side—by now I know the cold, juicy fruit doesn’t add any particular flavor to the grits.  The gravy, however, had me torn. It had the most watery consistency of all the gravy we’ve tried, making the grits a soggy mess to pick up by fork. But it also had a good Southern flavor that reminded me of crawfish boil and shrimp boil bases used to marinated seafood back home in New Orleans. A poignant spiced yet not too salty, the gravy actually added some zest to the otherwise bland Geechie Boy grits.

Now, don’t get me wrong, who doesn’t love Geechie Boy? Yellow in color with bits of actual corn added to the taste, these might be one of the best brands of grits available. But without any additional cheese added, the grits were a bit plain when consumed separately from the bowls other contents.

Which, of course, included shrimp. Easily forgettable, these shrimp weren’t anything special as compared to the other meaty contents of the bowl that included both tasso ham and sausage that added just enough briny flavor and substance to the grits. You didn’t even need to eat the shrimp, which I also chose to avoid.

Other things to look for:snob 3

The grilled chicken was some of the best grilled chicken I’ve ever had—period. Perfectly charred on the outside while still being tender and moist on the inside, the depth of flavor between the rub and the flavor of the chicken was extraordinary. The grilled summer vegetables were okay, but the goat cheese croutons (really just battered fried balls of goat cheese) were delectable and paired perfectly with the spice in the chicken. This dish was actually better than the shrimp and grits.

Stay tuned for the action-packed conclusion and our favorite shrimp and grits picks!

Managing the Bard and Puppets

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Stage mangers often go unrecognized, doing behind-the-scenes chores to make sure that the show runs smoothly. Because of stage managers, props are never lost, cues aren’t missed and the curtain rises and falls (generally) on time. Robin Longley, stage manger for Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Shakespeare’s  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” has an added element to watch over, puppets. Check out what he does and what it takes to make the magic happen at each performance with the Bard, puppets, and festival-goers.

“Midsummer” is a well-known work, how would you describe this interpretation of the classic?
Longley: It is a smart, sexy, inventive, rude and slightly crazy version of the Shakespeare classic. And it’s got puppets, lots of puppets, in it.

Some people maybe reluctant to see Shakespeare, in what ways does this production make the work more accessible?
Longley: I think the time spent in rehearsals delving into the meaning of the text is very well rewarded in the performances given and the story is really clear.

What would you say were some of the highlights of the production process?Longley:Unpacking the puppets that Handspring Puppet Company had shipped to Bristol in on my first day on the job in January has to be up there. There’s also nothing like doing the show for the first time in front of an audience – you learn where the laughs and the rounds of applause generally are – we keep tweaking the show too, so there are new funny bits for the Spoleto audience that the people of Bristol never got to see.

What were some of the more challenging moments for the production?
Longley: From a stage management perspective, every day can be a challenge: from the scheduling of rehearsals that may clash with costume fittings, or trying to work out where a noise is coming from in the building during a quiet bit of a performance, to how to do the show with an actor who is throwing up in the toilet.

How does doing a festival production differ from a longer running production for a theatre’s season?
Longley: Normally you set a show up, and come in and do the set up at the same time every day and do the show at the same time every night. At Spoleto, logistically everything is different. There are four different show times; we have to pack the set, costumes, props, puppets and some of the lighting equipment away every few days for the Opera; every day there are chamber concerts on the front of our set which means the local crew have to move some of our floor sections to get a piano or a marimba or a harpsichord in (Spoleto has an excellent crew by the way).

Tell me a bit about your background as a stage manager and working with the festival?
Longley: Back home in the UK I am a freelance stage and company stage manager. I have worked in many of the UK’s best, in my opinion, producing theaters up and down the country since training in stage management and technical theater at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I became attached to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” after working with Tom Morris on his recent production of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons,” which played in London’s West End and toured the UK from December 2011 through to May 2012. Tom asked me to work on “MSND” while we were still touring with that and I was somehow able to fill the gap with work (and also become a father to my daughter Olive in July).

Have you worked as a stage manager for other Shakespeare productions? If so, how does this production differ from the others you’ve worked on?
Longley: I have worked on “Julius Caesar” for Birmingham Rep; “Richard II” for the Royal Shakespeare Company; “Much Ado About Nothing” for Regent’s Park Open Air Theare, London; two productions of “Antony and Cleopatra” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in the title roles, and Chichester Festival Theatre, with Michael Pennington and Kim Cattrall. I have never done one with this few actors or this many puppets.

How would you describe “Midsummer” to someone who is unfamiliar with the play?
Longley: It is a love story with an hilarious subplot involving ‘rude mechanicals’ (to quote Puck) that culminates in a performance within the play of Pyramus and Thisbe with some of the finest stage clowning I have ever had the pleasure of stage managing.

Using everyday objects for music on command

I took my 13-year-old daughter to a contemporary music concert this weekend, one in the Spoleto Festival’s Music in Time series, organized by Resident Conductor John Kennedy. It featured a program of recent music by the New York City-based composer Nathan Davis, who creates conceptual soundscapes inspired by natural and not-so-natural phenomena. It might seem heady for a young teenager, but I see no reason why young people should not be exposed to this kind of music — before their tastes become calcified by age and prejudice.

—Adam Parker

BY ZOE ALESSANDRA DE LUCA-PARKER
Special to The Post and Courier

The first piece by Nathan Davis in the Music in Time series concert on Sunday was “Bells.” The composer told everyone to take his cell phones out and dial a number, then an access code (there were four, labeled Astral, Cryptic, Telegraphic and Tintinnabular) of your choice. While in most concerts the music comes from the stage, Music in Time makes music come from every direction, filling the whole room with different sounds.

The second piece, “Weather Rock,” had many different parts to it. It had a violin and a cello each with one thin string hanging off. The players pulled the strings to make amazing, stuttering sound a little like the wind. The percussionists used various objects, including rocks to make a very interesting gravelly sound.

“On speaking a hundred names” was a piece for a bassoon, one of my favorite instruments. It changed from something classical to something exploratory and seemingly accidental, but all very much done on purpose. The bassoon player, Ryan Wilkins, also played the same note in many different ways. I enjoyed this piece very much because I liked the effects created by the playing and by the technology that enhanced it.

The next piece was “Crawlspace.” This piece was the most fascinating to me because the composer took a microphone and placed it on the keyboard of his laptop computer, then took a camera and showed what he was doing. Sometimes he would hit the keys, moving the microphone around to different spots on the computer. The result was robot-sounding, and very dynamic, with many sounds created at once.

The last piece was called “Skryzp Skzryn.” It was a string quartet that started very high and, as the piece proceeded, went lower and lower. I liked this piece because it showed how the instruments change sound and the instruments’ range. All four of the instruments would do things at different times.

Nathan Davis makes music from sounds that are natural or created by common things. Another composer might be inspired by these sounds and attempt to transcribe them for instruments, but Davis uses the sounds themselves, along with regular sounds from instruments, sometimes transcribed electronically.

This show was definitely one of the most interesting shows I have ever been to. This show was for everyone to enjoy.

Finding Hope with “Mayday Mayday”

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“Mayday Mayday” recounts the miraculous and unbelievable story of Tristan Sturrock, the man who suffered a near fatal fall, which left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

But, not for long.

Sturrock, the writer, performer and co-director of the production was just 37 years old when he stumbled out of a bar on a mission. He found his way to his car and sped down the road in search for a bag of chips for his then five-month pregnant girlfriend, Katie. Unfortunately, instead of finding chips, he found himself with a broken C5, unable to move any limbs and faced with a life altering decision: to let his injury heal naturally with a halo brace or to endure an “intervention surgery,” which could either leave him healed or dead. So much for a happy medium.

“Mayday Mayday” is a one-man show, with Sturrock playing various characters (the

Tristan Sturrock in "Mayday Mayday"

Tristan Sturrock in “Mayday Mayday”

doctor, his sister, his mom and the surgeon). With each character he is able to perfect a convincing persona—his mother, nurturing and concerned, the doctors knowledgeable and direct and his whimsical sister, and even if she’s a bit absentminded.

The transitions between characters seem effortless, as Sturrock switches between professionals and family members with ease.

Though the play strikes a serious chord (the newly paralyzed man was expecting his first child, the story line had enough humor built in to make it feel more inspirational than heartbreaking.

A toy truck served as the ambulance and a toy helicopter transported him to the hospital, which gave the story a childlike element. His playful nature allowed audiences to laugh at his misfortunes rather than cry at his losses.

Perhaps the main reason why this production is such a success is because the audience is hearing it in first person; Sturrock wasn’t a person playing a character, he was telling his story.

His eyes burned with passion and hope, which the audience found enthralling—as he told his story. Sturrock has conquered the ability to look at the glass half full and he holds his glass while walking gracefully across various stages around the world.

Review: Noche Andaluza

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The outstanding premier of Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía fulfilled the expectations of the Spoleto Festival USA audience. The vitality and sensuality of the dancers made the “Noche Andaluza” (“Andalusian Night”) performance a delightful introduction into the secrets of Andalusian dancing.

Colorful dresses, clean dancing and live music harmonized in a show that had its strongest moments when the whole company danced together. Even though part of the essence of flamenco dancing is its spontaneity, the synchronization and elegantl interaction between female and male dancers gave energy and rhythm to the presentation.

The guest dancer (Pastora Galván) had an evident control of her body. Her power, security and attitude seemed to say that she could do anything she wanted to. She showed, in each step, why she has her own avant-garde style.

That is precisely why one of the finest moments of the show was the one in which Galván dances on one side of the stage, while the company is on the other. Traditional and avant-garde flamenco dancing were shown together to give the viewer a taste of the infinitive possibilities of the Spanish style of dancing.

The style of the show changed, though, when the choreographer and artistic director Rubén Olmo, appeared on the stage. His thin figure and his extremely versatile dancing capacity gave him the possibility to freely and delicately jump through the stage as if he were a bird in the act called “El Vuelo” (“The Flight”). Olmo’s solo pause the energetic rhythm experienced before and makes a good transition for the ending.

The show rightly finished with a more spontaneous scene in which the musicians had the possibility to sing and dance at the center of the stage, while the company surrounded them keeping the rhythm with their claps. This act highlights the importance of music for flamenco and especially the role that this Spanish has as an art manifestation truly encrusted in Spanish culture.

Puppets Bring Shakespeare to Life

Review of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Dock Street Theatre.

Spoleto Festival USA’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is not just about bringing Shakespeare’s play to life. It’s also about bringing puppets to life in Shakespeare’s play.

The production, by Handspring Puppet Company and Bristol Old Vic, makes use of puppets to present the fantasy world. But in this realm (being housed at the Dock Street Theatre), the puppets and actors exist alongside and interact with each other.

Four young lovers —Hermia (Akiya Henry), Lysander (Alex Felton), Demetrius (Kyle Lima) and Helena (Naomi Cranston) — appear as puppets wearing the same clothing as the actors who control them. Though weird at first sight, the puppets soon interweave with the actors’ breaths, gestures, physical movements and voices.

William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The gods Oberon and Titania, meanwhile, are presented in another style, one more reminiscent of sculptures. David Pearce, who plays Oberon, holds a big wooden head and a mechanical hand that can point, make a fist and fetch objects. Saskia Portway, who plays Titania, raises a regal sculpture head. When the gentle yellow light falls on the sculptures, they look stately and solemn, yet the shadow falling to their right also adds a gloomy cast.

The puppets carry the metaphor of the play. As the story goes on, the lovers are aware of the puppets and act as counterparts with them, exchanging and even dropping them. This blurs reality and fantasy, which helps convey the supernatural powers of this uncharted era and place. The contrast between the sizes of the puppets speaks to their relative status. On the other hand, the production also makes room for the absurd, notably the conversion of Puck as a transformative creature made of carpenter’s tools (carried by three actors) and Bottom’s transformation into an ass, who plays a comical word game with his name by reversing his head and his backside.

The production does ask a lot of the audience, however, by demanding that they crane their necks for a better view of the puppets on stage in order to understand the lover’s plight in this rendition of Shakespeare’s classic.