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Puppets On Parade 

And other wondrous sights at Spoleto

The Colla Marionettes have performed at Spoleto Festival USA before, appearing at Charleston's annual celebration of the arts as far back as 1987. As they did in both 1989 and 2000, the skilled puppeteers from Milan crossed the Atlantic with two separate programs this year. If you peeped in on the Collas over the Memorial Day weekend, you'd find them performing Shéhérazade and Pétruschka in tandem — accompanied by cunning transcriptions of both orchestral warhorses for two pianos. Last weekend, the epic chivalry of Guerrino the Unfortunate took over the little stage, dignified by the musical pageantry of Verdi and Meyerbeer.

But for the first time, the Collas' invasion at Emmett Robinson Theatre resounded powerfully at the antique Dock Street Theatre. Puppets were no longer at the periphery.

An enchanting 20th Century opera by Ottorino Respighi was reclaimed in a US premiere, utilizing an entire cast of lifesize puppets. Most stunning of all, Ibsen's landmark drama, A Doll's House, was audaciously reimagined by the Mabou Mines theater company with key moments — including the climactic dialogue between Nora and Torvald — turned into puppet show.

In a signature moment of DollHouse, where all the domineering men are played by dwarfs, a jubilant Torvald learns that he and Nora are unexpectedly freed from the threat of extortion. He's literally lifted into the air — on the shoulders of a black-clad "invisible" wearing a gold mask — paraded around the absurd dollhouse set like a puppet.

It's one of many jarring breaches of good taste and modesty strewn across this production from beginning to end. As he is hoisted aloft, Torvald endures the ultimate objectification at the hands of Mabou's mischievous director, Lee Breuer. Staging a text that rages against the objectification of women, Breuer turns political correctness on its head.

I'd be exaggerating if I told you that all of Spoleto has been turned on its head this year. But the festival has definitely been given a vigorous shake. While some of the key shocks came in the theater lineup, Spoleto 2005 may be best remembered for its opera roster.

Opera

Don Giovanni — The infamous pool from last year's Peony Pavilion has been recycled at Memminger Auditorium for an environmental staging of Mozart's intense melodrama. Here the obdurate legend of the Stone Guest is mixed with capricious touches of comedy, nowhere more effectively than in the thunderous final scene as Giovanni confronts the Commendatore whom he has murdered.

Even the lobby of Memminger comes into play as the auditorium doors are opened upon the Don's gleaming banquet tables. He's gorging himself on a bucket of KFC as the Commendatore rises colossally from the grave!

Stage director Günter Krämer roots out the sensuality that's usually missing in productions of Giovanni, with orgiastic poolside antics and a marvelously mellifluous Monica Yunus cavorting as Zerlina. Ellie Dehn's take on Donna Elvira is openly passionate with hardly a trace of the usual aristocratic reserve. But the Commendatore's daughter, Donna Anna, is turned into mournful dreariness by Joana Gedmintaite, and this new production is further hampered by a Leporello who can't get a laugh.

Overall, Krämer's concept compellingly invites to rethink this Mozart masterwork despite a few barren stretches. Nmon Ford makes a charismatic Don though somewhat upstaged by Yunus' vocal exploits, and conductor Emmanuel Villaume weaves an unbroken spell from the youthful Spoleto Festival Orchestra. (Additional performances on June 9 and 11) GRADE: B+

La bella dormente nel bosco — This whimsical retelling of the "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale is an unalloyed delight. Respighi may have missed his calling, dying in 1936 before Disney came to cinematic prominence. The richness of Respighi's 1934 orchestration cries out for the screen, and his puppet conception is an animation natural.

Or it is with puppet meister Basil Twist directing. Watching the fantastical dance trio of the princess, her housecat and the fatal spindle, I couldn't escape the notion that I was watching a cartoon preview of the Disneyized "Sorcerer's Apprentice" — devised before the technology existed to capture such fantasia on celluloid.

Olga Makarina as the Blue (Good) Fairy and Kathryn Day as the Green (Wicked) Fairy are the vocal stars, with Daniel Sutin adding heft as the fretful King and Eduardo Valdes sounding ardent as Prince April. Language is the only barrier to enjoyment by the whole family, eased by supertitles. (June 10) GRADE: A

Die Vögel — The same artistic team that triumphantly brought Kurt Weill's Die Bürgschaft to America, at Spoleto USA in 1999, now bring another treasurable premiere to the Carolinas. Jonathan Eaton's stage direction is nearly as inspired as Danila Korogodsky's set and costume design, taking us to a magical realm where misanthropic men commune with birds. Conductor Julius Rudel's devotion to the score assures that Walter Braunfels' music emerges as a revelation.

What Rudel & Co. do for Braunfels is fully matched by what Braunfels does for Aristophanes. I've never warmed to any previous production I've witnessed of the revered Greek playwright's comedies, but this exploration of how our Promethean urges corrupt the natural order is engaging from start to finish. Soprano Youngkok Shin shimmers in the sweet coloratura role of the Nightingale. Shin's bird-human duet with tenor Roy Cornelius at the start of Act 2 is achingly poignant and splendid; Brian Mulligan's rueful warnings as Prometheus are tragically stirring; and the stormy overthrow of the Bird City in the Sky by an awakening Zeus, sung by Daniel Gross, is absolutely Wagnerian in its force if not in its complexity.

The remainder of the cast falls noticeably below these principals vocally, but gruff baritone Dale Travis delivers the best comedy as the reckless human agitator. Yet it's the lyrical beauty of our musical journey to birdland that lingers most hauntingly. (June 11) GRADE: A-

Theater

Mabou Mines DollHouse - Size definitely matters in this unfailingly smart deconstruct of Ibsen's classic. If you thought realism or naturalism was the Norwegian's natural métier, Breuer's no-holds-barred assault will likely convince you that the very air that Nora and Torvald breathe is melodrama.

Lighting and keyboard accompaniment conspire to reduce Ibsen's idiom to cabaret mawkishness or the flickering guignol of silent film. The dollhouse scenery is constructed before our eyes as the action begins, and Maude Mitchell — in her doll's dress and her doll's hair — gives a magnificently gauged performance that ranges from cartoon superficiality to coquettish obsequiousness to childish self-absorption.

Of course, the diminutive men of her world make a mockery of everything, just beginning with their insouciant superiority. After all, how can Nora be blind to their smallness — or hesitate to break free of their tyranny — when she can carry her husband and her blackmailer around like children? Mark Povinelli, a mini Warren Beatty, magnificently sounds Torvald's tirades, but the whole seedy carnival is perfection.

Our journey in Act 2 is breathtaking, beginning with the low comedy of fellation and building to a nude affirmation by Nora that evokes the apotheosis at the end of Wit. Superb stuff. (Daily through June 11). GRADE: A+

Colla Marionettes — If you like costumes, pageantry and a questing adventure that takes you as far east as the Temple of the Sun, Guerrino the Unfortunate might be exactly the epic you're dying to laugh at. With marionettes, you see, what's amusing is what heroes can't do — or can only do clumsily. Such challenging activities include everything from walking to kissing to riding a horse. If you don't admire the craft that goes into making inanimate objects seem like they're doing these things, or if you're no longer amused, an hour and a half with the Collas begins to drag like the torments of Dante's lowest circles of Hell. I'm almost sure Shéhérazade and Pétrischka were livelier entertainments. GRADE: C-

Kingdom of Desire — Lots of tasty Chinese percussion accompanied this moo-goo-gai-pan Macbeth. So pervasive was the instrumental din — and so stylized the acting — that this Contemporary Legend Theatre production might be better categorized as opera. Or very acrobatic dance.

Messengers routinely entered from the wings doing cartwheels or gymnastic tumbling. But none of their antics matched the grandeur of General Au-Shu's death in battle (following Lady Au-Shu's suicide and that moving forest deal). Wu Hsing-Kuo, playing the role of Au-Shu, didn't merely take an arrow to the heart. No, he executed a complete backflip off a seven-foot high ridge. Then from a standing position, he fell backwards to the ground without a single member of his army breaking his fall.

Now that's dying. I'm sure I would have been more impressed with the whole spectacle had I not seen multiple oriental Macbeths before. So sorry, but Tiny Ninja Macbeth proved to be a damned tough act to follow. GRADE: B-

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