Since 1977, Spoleto Festival USA has grown into America's preeminent celebration of the performing arts, cramming over 135 theater, opera, jazz, orchestral music, chamber music, and dance events into an intoxicating 17-day arts orgy in historic Charleston, South Carolina. Established by Gian Carlo Menotti and modeled after the Festival of Two Worlds, which the composer founded in Spoleto, Italy 18 years earlier, the American offspring has long since outgrown and outclassed its Italian namesake. Chamber music concerts, hosted by the genial Charles Wadsworth, are the most beloved events at Spoleto; more prestigious are the rosters of dance companies and jazz virtuosi who come to Charleston, and Joseph Flummerfelt's Westminster Choir is always a breath of heaven.

Theater has never played a dominant role at Spoleto but it has always had a foothold here, co-tenanting the antique Dock Street Theatre with other events. There are several proud moments in Spoleto's theater annals, including the American premieres of works by Arthur Miller and Athol Fugard. This year, Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared in Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient and there were other inroads. Two one-man shows were on the schedule, swelling the total of theater offerings to three and the number of performances to 27. There were also more hybrids than ever before, with slots in the festival formerly held by avant-garde dance troupes taken by dance theater, music theater, and multimedia offerings. My wife and I gorged ourselves on a dozen different Spoleto events; scurrying between seven locations around Charleston, we were still able to duck into some of our favorite restaurants and the new gelateria on George Street. It was a great getaway!

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Pilar Witherspoon, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Luis Perezin Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and The Patient(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Pilar Witherspoon, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Luis Perez
in Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and The Patient
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Georgia, Georgia, the Whole Day Through

On the heels of his success in Sex and the City, Mikhail Baryshnikov knows that he doesn't have to get back on his toes. But the aging ballet icon has enough physical magic left in him to have made his portrayal of Chito, a delusional Georgian peasant in Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient, one very Chaplinesque delight. The Georgia we're speaking of in this one-act, created and directed by Rezo Gabriadze, is a mockery of the republic that was part of Stalinist Russia in the winter of 1952. In this parable glorifying the persistence of faith under a totalitarian regime, Chito is a colorful character that Gabriadze recalls from his own Georgian youth, famed throughout his hometown of Kutaisi for believing that he was a car.

Watching Baryshnikov vibrate with ignition, open his own doors for passengers, and skid to a graceful halt, we could almost share the character's delusion, but few of us would venture out into a winter night in order to minister medicine to this human taxi's daughter. That's what the Doctor in Forbidden Christmas does, despite his exhaustion from previous housecalls and despite the likelihood that Chito's daughter is as illusory as his car. While the rationale for the Doctor's lengthy pilgrimage to Chito's home is devotion to his profession, the Doctor's doggedness eventually stamps his journey as an act of faith.

In Jon DeVries' finely nuanced portrayal of the Doctor, belief in science and medicine took on a Scroogean tone. It's what compels him to cure Chito of his delusion even though his life is happier as a car, but there's enough soul to this Doctor -- and enough Christian spirit -- for him to feel a simultaneous compulsion to acquaint Chito with Christ and to realize that curing Chito was a grievous mistake.

Gabriadze told much of his story with fanciful imagery, costumes, and the occasional puppet. A curtain festooned with proletarian mural art greeted us as we entered the Dock Street Theatre. Surrounded by ugly industrial plants, a ballerina stood atop a piano en pointe, impossibly balancing an outsized hammer and sickle over her head. A row of logs turning on spits simulated an ocean when Chito made his ill-fated return from military duty. Characters appeared and disappeared behind thin curtains drawn slowly across stage, and the recurring angel that reappeared during the Doctor's odyssey wore flaming red socks.

With so much cargo borne on Gabriadze's visuals, his script remained poetically spare in depicting the nightmare of Red Russia. In one of his impish multiple roles, Luis Perez as a telephone lineman climbed to the top of a pole -- along with a simple puppet replica of himself -- and surreptitiously tapped into a line so he could wish his wife a merry Christmas. But the unseen wife foolishly jeopardized his career by mentioning the name of the holiday over the phone, drawing a stern rebuke from the lineman.

That phone call encapsulates the enormity of the evil behind Chito's religious ignorance. Baryshnikov's ability to capture Chito's pixy innocence mad the pathos even keener, yet intimations of the indomitable human spirit were never far off. The Georgian sound collage punctuating the action had a definite Hispanic flavor that echoed Chito's name; the mariachi harmonies were also a constant reminder of the subterranean fires waiting to break loose in an oppressed people. Soviet Russia won't disintegrate for another 47 years, so there's plenty of winter still ahead. Under such conditions, spiritual hibernation is a plausible prescription.

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David Gordon and Valda Setterfield(Photo © Andrew Eccles)
David Gordon and Valda Setterfield
(Photo © Andrew Eccles)
Quite a Couple

David Gordon and his partner Valda Setterfield were originally slated to bring a new Pick Up Performance Company version of Ionesco's The Chairs to Spoleto. Instead, the couple rounded up some additional company members and presented a trio of "dancing and talking suites" utilizing two previous works, Private Lives of Dancers and Family$Death@Art.COMedy. A new work, Dancing Henry Five, was sandwiched in-between.

Pick Up doesn't seem to go in for elaborate costuming or scenery, or formality. Their pre-show activity at the Emmett Robinson Theatre looked like a dance or gym warmup as a performer in casual wear stretched onstage and jogged a couple of laps. As the time for Private Lives... to begin drew closer, the cast and crew began assembling piles of diverse junk, all of it on wheels; the motley vehicles included a shopping cart, a rolling hospital serving tray, a laundry basket, a blackboard, and an I.V. stand. Then the talking began, with Setterfield and Gordon as a preternaturally innocuous husband and wife. As they conversed about their morning breakfast, with Gordon contributing only monosyllables to the conversation, the couple quietly and efficiently removed every vehicle from the stage -- plus all the junk piled on top -- without ever acknowledging their presence.

Obviously, the spirit of Ionesco had made it down to Charleston after all. In ensuing sketches, the dancers' lives continued to be humdrum as these paragons of litheness and beauty bickered over who was snoring the night before. At one point, a dancing daughter was taken to task for charging a couch to her mother's credit card after stating that she was shopping for a chair. Yet the deflation of the dancers' mythic grace and ethereality lent a sweetness to the suite.

Dancing Henry distilled all of Shakespeare's pageantry and derring-do into three brief scenes, mixed with music by William Walton and clips from the Olivier film. The opening scene was a sedate pas de deux (by Setterfield and the buoyant Karen Graham) that brought us to the King of France's palace, where the king's daughter, Katherine, was taking her first English lesson from her chambermaid. After a brief "Sea Voyage" interlude, we fast-forwarded to the final scene wherein Henry and Katherine charmingly broke through the language barrier and declared their true love. There was a delightful ambivalence here as Gordon's additions to Shakespeare reminded us that Henry and Katherine were expected to be amiable in uniting their kingdoms. Taking on Henry's mantle in the dance, however, Tadej Brdnik looked ardently into Graham's eyes even as she was fussily chaperoned by Setterfield.

Family.COMedy brought us back to absurdity, scored to repetitive music by Michael Nyman and Conlan Nancarrow. The most memorable of the dialogues here climaxed in the Setterfield's admission to Gordon that, no, she hadn't bought a different hand cream with a less agreeable scent; rather, she had farted. Gordon's choreography was even more absurd in the last section of the suite, "The Long Walk," nothing more complex than the steps you rehearse before a wedding ceremony if you're giving away the bride. It was an ending to an absurdist evening that Ionesco would have relished.

While Setterfield proved that grace can linger in a dancer through late middle age, Gordon's movements were militantly commonplace. Yes, there's humor aplenty in seeing nearly all of the poetry, grace, and youthful athleticism we associate with lead dancers blithely stripped away; but the beauty of verisimilitude remained intact, unscarred by the laughter.

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Brian Lipson in A Large Attendance in the Antechamber
Brian Lipson in A Large Attendance in the Antechamber
Attend the Tale

When I looked on the outside walls of the cozy little set for A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, I was hit with a jolt as powerful as any I'd experienced during the performance. Written on each of the two walls was playwright-performer Brian Lipson's mailing address. The entire set could have been folded up and shipped!

Sitting inside this claustrophobic environment and behind the small desk that spanned its width, Lipson remained frozen before us as we entered the theater. (That explained why the doors to Gage Hall were opened a scant 10 minutes before the performance was scheduled to begin.) As the hour approached, Lipson's eyes began to glassily scan the small audience. With an almost glacial slowness, he came to life. Or, to follow the conceit of A Large Attendance, Lipson was gradually possessed by the spirit of Charles Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, the man endowed with the highest IQ ever recorded by humankind. Even more gradually, Galton's voice evolved from a spectral, forlorn falsetto to a more convivial baritone.

The title of Lipson's piece comes from an excerpt of Galton's prolix prose that was printed in the program, describing how successful thought proceeds from the natural and involuntary congregation of ideas in the antechamber of his mind. Fortunately, Lipson's evocation of his subject was handled with simpler language while retaining the flavor of Galton's eccentricities. These eccentricities were most entertaining at the outset as we became acquainted with the visiting genius. Within the close confines of his office, Galton constructed an elaborate contraption reminiscent of the fanciful machines of Rube Goldberg, triggered by the flame of an oil lamp burning through a cord and engineered for the sole purpose of stamping the playwright's name on his forehead.

At one point, Galton/Lipson wriggled out of his office and plucked a volunteer out of the audience to serve as his projectionist. From there, we gradually descended from Galton's more laughable scientific investigations into the chthonic depths of his theories on race and eugenics. Quaint facial composites of sisters gathered during Galton's dubious "Beauty Map of England" were succeeded by Galton's photo composite of Jewish boys. Then we encountered Galton's three principles of eugenics, the last of which was "No charity." In faint outline, we beheld a bridge between Darwinism and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Galton was wittily co-credited with the writing and performance of the piece; throughout the 82-minute presentation, he chafed against the tyranny of appearing to us through the inferior medium of Lipson. Following our host through the labyrinthine trail of his monologue, we often felt that we were watching the disintegration of a supremely gifted scientist's mind. Occasionally, Lipson gave us the inkling that his mind was cracking.

Underneath this beautifully crafted, beautifully presented entertainment lay the fearful proposition that the human mind -- and human science -- can be too powerful for its own good. That was almost as creepy as seeing Galton come to life before our eyes.

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[This year's Spoleto Festival USA ran from May 28 through June 13. For more information, visit www.spoletousa.org]