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Funky hybrid Monkey 

And other Spoleto sights

On Memorial Day, the last day that Freedom Schooner Amistad was moored in Charleston, I strolled onto the Maritime Center boardwalk just after 4pm, camera at the ready. So less than an hour remained before tours of the historic replica were scheduled to end -- and our next Spoleto Festival USA jazz concert was scheduled to begin.

There was no sign of the Spanish slave ship, which commemorates the 1839 mutiny of kidnapped Africans against their captors and their ultimate vindication a year later in the US Supreme Court. Apparently, the latter-day Amistad has a free spirit of its own and does not recognize the shackles of mundane Spoleto brochure texts. Seizing a window of opportunity, the ship had set off to sea a full 20 minutes earlier.

We found a better brand of hospitality onshore and at the festival. When we were late for our 10:30 dinner reservation three nights earlier -- a warning not to believe festival estimates for the length of outdoor jazz concerts at The Cistern -- staff at the Coast Bar & Grille cordially welcomed us about 15 minutes before their 11pm closing time. Spoleto has demonstrated a cordiality of its own: To accommodate demand for Monkey: Journey to the West, they're serving up an extra matinee this Thursday.

Of course, behind the smiles and hospitality, anxiety may be lurking. Monkey and Amistad, Anthony Davis's specially commissioned opera, are selling spectacularly. Carolina Chocolate Drops are sold out for all of their four performances this week, in case you were nurturing a hope of snagging a ticket. But over on Calhoun Street, there's a discreet partition in the orchestra section at Gaillard Auditorium, betraying a sharp fall-off in ticket sales for Boston Ballet, Geneva Ballet, and the festival production of Rossini's La Cenerentola. Upstairs in the balcony, the bargain-priced seats seem very well spoken-for.

Blame the economy -- or gas prices -- if you must. Sue and I saw no diminution of traffic on Meeting Street over the holiday weekend, but crowds along the distinctive open-air mall on Market Street seemed somewhat shrunken. Even more unprecedented: We lucked up on a parking spot there! That enabled us to arrive on time for our dinner reservation at Anson's, which was bustling as usual but not nearly full. We highly recommend the triggerfish entrée, by the way.

With Monkey triumphing at the box office, the Szechuan earthquake in the news, and the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, China is unusually top-of-mind at Spoleto this year. Excitingly, so is the festival's future. Dock Street Theatre is draped in tarp, undergoing sorely needed renovations, so the customary theater production running the full duration of the festival had to be scrapped for 2008.

The true hub of Spoleto, Dock should be back in commission for 2010. Less publicized is the construction in progress at the College of Charleston on St. Philip Street, adjacent to the Simons Center, where much of the edgier music and theater are performed. That massive building signals an enormous expansion of the Theatre, Music, and Dance Departments at CofC -- and possibly a glorious windfall for Spoleto.

Meanwhile, the wondrously renovated Meminger Auditorium offered festivalgoers a tantalizing first glimpse of the future. With five days of intoxicating Spoleto effervescence left before its Sunday finale, here's how this year's festival shapes up (* denotes shows that are still running):


The Burial at Thebes -- With Dock Street now dark, Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company was compelled to present this update of Sophocles' Antigone outdoors at The Cistern, a move the ancient Greeks and their gods would have applauded. The flavor of religious ceremony is preserved by director Lucy Pittman-Wallace and designer Jessica Curtis, while the thrust of Seamus Heaney's idiomatic translation is gently steered toward a denunciation of Bush 42 via the stubborn, arrogant, deviously patriotic King Creon, successor to the brilliant and perverse Oedipus. Original music by Mick Sands puts flute, lute, violin, cello, clarinets, and drum in the hands of the talented ensemble.

The most shattering aspect of this production, however, is the force of Sophocles' passion through the mouths of this fine cast, including Richard Evans as the vatic Teiresias and Peter Basham as Creon's son Haemon. Catherine Hamilton is a magnificent Antigone with just the slightest bit of disdain for her moral inferiors, and Paul Bentall is a fearsomely believable Creon. Best Greek drama these eyes have ever seen.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea -- The 1927 company who present this deliciously zany confection are a perfectly meshed quartet of Londoners. With Lillian Henley at the keyboard and Paul Barritt supplying animated film, our transport back to the Jazz Age and the sanctum of silent movie houses is smooth and convincing. Completing the comedy magic are the two centerstage performers, writer/director/flapper Suzanne Andrade and Esme Appleton, one hilariously irresistible pixie.

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