SPOLETO REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest

importance When I first learned that Spoleto would be presenting one of my favorite fun plays, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at this year's festival, and that it was being produced by The Gate Theatre, one of the most distinguished theatre companies in the world, I felt an amalgam of emotion. Having seen Earnest several times on stage and screen, the prospect of the opportunity to see Gate Theatre regulars Alex Felton and Michael Ford-Fitzgerald as Algernon Moncrief and Jack Worthing, respectively, certainly presented a thrill. After all, it's difficult to find a season at The Gate in which the company does not present a Wilde performance --and he only wrote a thrifty handful of plays. If you only get to see one Wilde play in your life you should make sure it's the Gate Theatre putting it on.

However, The Gate Theatre has come to perform almost as regularly in Charleston as it does in Dublin. Well, that's not entirely true, but the company has become a regular presenter over the past few decades bringing us such plays as Present Laughter, Pride and Prejudice, Two Plays After, Hay Fever, I'll Go On, The Constant Wife (which though written by Maugham is still quite Wildesque), as well as Salome back in 1990 and Lady Windermere's Fan in 98.

So if the caliber of The Gate's work is undeniable and the company arguably offers the quintessential Wilde experience, why doesn't the equation result in a win/win situation?

It's because as much as there are few things as fun and clever as Wilde's playful play, there are also few things as boring. Despite the fact that I knew in my heart that The Gate would bring period costumes and perfectly chintzy and doillied  sets to the Dock Street Theatre, in my heart of hearts I had hoped they would shake things up a bit. Why not use the duplicity and social satire of the characters to set the action in LA or DC? Why not embrace the allusion to homosexuality in the play that even Wilde admitted he may have inadvertently included in its writing to expand upon the trivial role gender binaries and heteronormativity play in culture these days? Or even go blue with it? (Wilde writes about Bunburying for Christ sake!) Of course, we can take the lessons of Woolton's Manor House and apply them to contemporary society, but how much fun would it be to cast Lorna Quinn's Cecily as a Tri-Delt and Aoibhin Garrihy's Gwendolyn as a fallen cheerleader kicked off the squad?

Alas, Marion O'Dwyer's Miss Prism and Deirdre Donnelly's Lady Bracknell are just as prim and proper as if you'd picked them from a Victorian Garden and Mark Lambert's Reverend Chasuble is just as bumbly as he would have been when the play was first written in 1895.

Two bits of innovation mark the play in the form of the butlers, played by Des Keogh and Bosco Hogan, who add the odd Red Skelton hop to their walking about the stage, and their interactions with the set which is far less Victorian than one would imagine. A large and lovely silk screen of Wilde himself transforms into cabinets and shelves that open to display the countryside and cityscape as the scenes change.

Clever, innovative, and of the 21st century. Something I'd like to see more of at Dock Street Theatre. //cb



My Cousin Rachel at Spoleto - Mini-Review

MyCousinRachel_3 The Columbia arts scene has kept us so busy at Jasper this season that we haven't had the time (or need?) to make it down to this year's Spoleto Festival nearly as much as in years past. It's not because there haven't been some exciting events going on down there -- this year's festival roster was as impressive as ever, from the Westminster Choir's El Nino to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to the upcoming production of the Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theatre.

My Cousin Rachel -- Dock Street Theatre

We did make it down to see a matinee of the Gate Theatre's My Cousin Rachel at Charleston's always inspiring Dock Street Theatre. My Cousin Rachel is a romantic-mystery novel written by Daphne Du Maurier in 1951  and adapted for the stage by Joseph O'Connor -- with more than a hint of the macabre added, at least in this interpretation. The play picks up at the part in the novel after which Ambrose, the owner of a Cornish estate has died following an extended health-related stay in Italy. In Florence, Ambrose fell in love with a cousin Rachel who, after his death, travels to Cornwall to pay her respects to Ambrose's adopted heir, Philip, with whom she soon develops an intimate relationship. The conflict in the play centers around trust -- but not the casual kind of trust, rather a life and death kind of trust. There's a beautiful subtlety to this version of the story interspersed with tense scenes that aptly address the misery of doubt. Of particular interest is the use of carnival masks on familiar cast members when Philip is tormented by dreams while in a feverish sleep.

The Gate theatre out of Dublin brings another fine example of their work to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. We highly recommend you catch My Cousin Rachel before it closes at the end of the week.


Reviews from Spoleto -- Chamber Music VI gets H.O.T. - HOT! with Cellist Christopher Costanza & Was that the Cast of The Office onstage?

St. Lawrence String Quartet I think everyone was concerned about how the Spoleto Chamber Music Series would fare once its founder the beloved Charles Wadsworth said goodbye. After seeing Geoff Nutall in action at my first chamber concert since Wadsworth’s leaving, I don’t think anyone is the least bit worried any more. (The cool-yet-sad thing? Wadsworth was in the audience and—as we learned Saturday afternoon—he will play his final public performance on the stage in the last of the series’ concerts later this week.) Nutall owned the stage offering clever banter and pertinent information in such a casual, stand-up comedy style that the audience giggled and laughed. And these audiences aren’t always the laughing and giggling types.

Charles Wadsworth

The Saturday program (Program VI) offered Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano featuring  St. Lawrence String Quartet’s (Nutall’s group) cellist Christopher Costanza, followed by Ginastera’s Duo for Flute and Oboe with the glorious Tara Helen O’Connor and James Smith, and finally Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Major, Opus 59, no. 1 performed beautifully by the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Before the concert, Nutall shared with the audience, via a letter written by Debussy, how much the composer hated being clumped in with the Impressionists of his era—he resented the whole extrapolation of a visual arts genre to music. This piece was written in 1914, just four years before his death of cancer in 1918. Debussy had planned for 6 sonatas but was only able to complete 3 including this sonata for cello.

Dock Street Theatre

OK, this is a little intimate here, but to my recollection my mind has never wondered to sex while attending a chamber music concert—until Saturday afternoon. There was something about watching Costanza and his relationship with his cello that was easily evocative of a person in the throes of pleasure. His face was beautifully expressive; his fingers, agile; his expertly calculated bowing with long and efficient strokes, delicious. Oh my.

And the music was nice, too.

Christopher Costanza

Here’s the funny thing. Costanza, though certainly more attractive, looks more than a little like the character of Toby the PR person from the recently ended sit-com series, The Office. Keep this in mind. We’ll come back to it after we address the Duo for Flute and Oboe which was awe-inspiring. Tara Helen O’Connor is a master of the flute—her intonation somehow simultaneously lightly delicate while also being intense. She and her partner for this concert, James Smith—who looks a lot like Seth Meyers from SNL—demonstrated a practically perfect interplay as they called to and answered one another, locking eyes for the final few notes of the duo and ending in an authentic embrace. It was resplendent.

The final number for the concert required that the entire St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) come to the stage. This musical group is like no other quartet in their commitment to all aspects of musical interpretation—facial, physical, etc. (I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them play many times before; one of the most memorable being in 2003 at the Joyce Theatre in NYC when the quartet accompanied Pilobolus Dance Theatre for the premiere of My Brother’s Keeper, performing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 Op. 110. The quartet also performed (unaccompanied by choreography) a piece by Jonathan Berger called Eli Eli (In Memory of Daniel Pearl.))

According to Nutall, with this string quartet Beethoven took classical music by the collar and threw it into the Romantic era, writing it in a way that would dare amateurs to try to play it. The complexity and difficulty of the piece was not lost on the audience in the Dock Street Theatre. Nor was the excitement of the accomplishment of such a difficult piece lost on the quartet whose engagement with the music is nothing short of thrilling. As usual, it was all Nutall could do to stay in his seat.

Geoff Nuttall

As mentioned previously, Nutall is a bit of a character. Sort of floppy haired at times with a wardrobe that looks like anything except what you would expect a first violinist in a Grammy-nominated, internationally renowned string quartet (the group is in residence at Stanford University) to look. On this particular day he wore a long sleeved shiny shirt, oddly patterned, and looking like something Michael Scott (also from The Office) might wear. When he called his colleagues onto stage it wasn’t difficult to see a family-television resemblance with Scott St. John playing the role of Dwight Shrute, Leslie Robertson playing Angela and, of course, Chris Costanza playing the part of a somewhat amorous Toby.

Even with Wadsworth watching from the audience, the Spoleto Chamber Music Series continues to be a culturally significant hoot—always full of surprises. Highly recommend.

Scott St. John aka Dwight Shrute


Leslley Robertson who looks more like Pam in this photo but on Saturday afternoon looked decidely like Angela