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Sky isn't falling at Spoleto Festival USA 

With our Charlotte Symphony reeling, the Baltimore Opera in bankruptcy, New York's JVC Jazz Festival cancelled, and the Met Opera cutting back on scheduling, our annual pilgrimage to Charleston over the Memorial Day weekend took on a new urgency. Sue and I wanted to make sure that Spoleto Festival USA was still there!

You bet it is. With one less venue and only one opera on this year's 17-day schedule, there was clear evidence of prudent belt-tightening by festival organizers. But nothing drastic. The number of events listed in the brochure shrank 11.3 percent to 133, and the brochure itself was pruned by 10 percent from 40 to 36 pages. Subtler yet, those pages, still oversized at 9x12", were reduced in area by 23 percent.

Fewer available tickets seemed to translate into fuller houses at the events we attended. Back rows at Gaillard Auditorium were partitioned and out of play for the opening night of Louise -- as they had been throughout last year's Spoleto. But those partitions came tumbling down for the mighty Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, celebrating their 50th anniversary, and those back rows were nearly sold out for both the performances we attended.

Whether it was a lunchtime chamber music concert or a late afternoon contemporary recital, holiday weekend or the Tuesday after, there were no sparse crowds, and nearly all were close to capacity. Even after a vicious headline on the front page of the Charleston Post & Courier, people were overflowing Emmett Robinson Theatre for the final performance of Story of a Rabbit.

Holiday traffic trended upwards as predicted from what we saw, and the day after we returned to Charlotte, The Broadway League announced that the 2008-09 season ending on May 24 was the highest-grossing ever. So you see, amid the Bush-Cheney recession there is still some good news if you pay attention.

Here's how I saw the first five days of Spoleto:

Theater

• Don John -- It isn't mere coincidence that Kneehigh Theatre's first visit to Charleston in 2006 with their production of Tristan & Yseult occurred during Spoleto Festival USA's reprise of Don Giovanni, the Mozart opera that provides the story line for Kneehigh's current Spoleto seduction. Günter Kramer's lushly environmental staging of Giovanni, remounted in Charleston after its highly acclaimed Festival premiere in 2005, reportedly inspired Kneehigh director/adaptor Emma Rice's John -- and there's an unmistakable Spoleto imprint upon it.

Kramer's Don cavorted in bucolic wantonness reminiscent of the ancient days of the Roman Empire -- or innumerable paintings from the Renaissance onwards. But when Giovanni's trusty valet, Leporello, attempted to dissuade the jilted Elvira from pursuing his insatiable master, he had more than a list of the libertine's 2065 conquests. He had Polaroids!

So does John's sidekick, Nobby -- plus a perpetually loaded camera that's ready to spit out more instant photos of fresh conquests. Here the photo equipment isn't anachronistic, for Rice has transposed the action to the pre-Thatcher UK in some unspecified grimy industrial backwater.

When the band isn't playing Stu Barker's original music or pitching in with stagehand chores, they're huddled with a shambling quartet of choristers around a flickering campfire built inside a metal drum, looking like unemployed -- or striking -- laborers. Their only entertainments are the outpourings of an old transistor radio and the adventures of Don John unfolding above and around them.

Anna, tethered in marriage to Vicar Derek and in duty to her invalid father, goes home to a boxcar that slides down from the upstage. The climactic scene where John rapes Anna and murders her father literally unfolds as the stage crew peels apart the three front walls of the boxcar so that they become extensions of its floor.

Like Robert Frost's humble "Oven Bird," Rice's deglamorized Don asks us over and over what we should make of diminished things. For John doesn't cavalierly warn Anna's father against dueling with him before running him through as Giovanni did. After stripping Dad of his gun, John kills him with it in cold blood -- doing Anna a favor to his drugged, besotted way of thinking. In the denouement, Father comes back Commendatore-like in a soldier's uniform to stretch out his hand to John. But unlike Mozart's fearsome statue-come-to-life, this reanimated corpse lacks the power to drag John down into hell. Instead, a few letters light up in the tawdry carnival sign that overarches the action, indicating we're already there.

Carnival lights strung across the downstage come into play as Alan, the latter-day Masetto, plans his wedding to Zerlina. A flickering bulb nearly gets Alan electrocuted -- twice -- and veteran Kneehigh actor/writer Carl Grose milks the physical comedy with the grace of a Keystone Cop. When the slutty Zerlina salves Alan's wounds, after a brutal thrashing from Don John deep in Act 2, Patrycja Kujawska's punkish, Polish mothering brings us closest to Mozart's comic spirit.

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