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Life is good at Spoleto USA

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Sitting upstairs at Poogan's Porch Restaurant on Memorial Day and digging into a concoction of grouper, goat cheese, and calamata olives -- drizzled with about seven times the butter my doctor would approve of -- I couldn't help thinking. Life is good. Theater, opera, dance, and music are glorious celebrations -- and Spoleto Festival is a Carolina epiphany.

The 26th edition of the greatest performing arts extravaganza on the planet has been free of capricious rains. And for its first gala weekend, a restraining order was issued on high, delaying the usual onset of torrid temperatures. As such, the holiday weekend filled the cobbled streets of Charleston with as many tourists and festival-goers as I've ever seen.

But the impact of the drooping economy was more evident last weekend as traffic lanes in the historic downtown lightened -- and temperatures climbed to 100 degrees in the Port City. Here are the highlights of my 2002 pilgrimage to Spoleto.

Dance

Opening weekend at Spoleto had a distinctively African flavor this year, largely due to the fine pair of dance companies that made the trek to the Port City. Dance Theatre of Harlem reveled unabashedly in the music, the ceremony, and the spectacular tribal costumes of the Dark Continent in their first two pieces at Gaillard Audiorium. They opened with a South African Suite, created by a troika that included Augustus van Heerden, Laveen Naidu, and company founder Arthur Mitchell.

Results of this choreography by committee were predictably uneven, best when it veered toward a sultry, sun-baked sensuality. Geoffrey Holder's Dougla was far more powerful and cohesive, representing the flamboyant ritual and celebration of a wedding between two "Dougla" folk, whose bloodlines are a mix of Hindu and African.

After this intense immersion in African tradition, we skipped more lightly with Robert Garland's Return, set to a suite of soul singles by Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Virtuosity, athleticism, and charismatic individuality were all on the same lofty level we behold routinely from our own North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Compagnie Kafig brought a Parisian sensibility to that most American of dance confections, hip-hop. As many as five members of this appealing troupe coordinated their charismatic skills simultaneously in Dix Versions. Sometimes the pieces were precisely choreographed. But these collective efforts moved seamlessly into segments that showcased the performers' individual personalities and routines. The most spectacular of their specialties were lightning-quick hand movements, moonwalking, sending loosey-goosey bodywaves rolling down to their toes, and the most amazing head spinning I've seen.

Anybody who doubted that hip-hop belonged in a prestigious international arts festival walked out of Garden Theatre a true believer.

Salia ni Seydou continues the African invasion this weekend.

Theatre

There's an obvious balance between the two miniatures playwright Brian Friel is bringing to the intimate Dock Street Theatre -- and a subtle consistency. The Bear, Friel's freewheeling new translation of an old Chekhov favorite, is 35 minutes of pure farcical silliness. Brendan Coyle is all brutish materialism in the title role, implacably demanding the money owed to him by pathologically mournful widow, Elena Popova -- until the woman in black turns tigress in her resistance. Then Gregory Smirnov hilariously transforms into brutish romantic, more determined to possess Elena than her delinquent rubles.

Eamon Morissey, as the unctuous and cowardly servant Luka, comically upstages his mistress until the denouement. But of course, Elena's transformation -- from sanctimonious mourner to lascivious lover -- is the most hilarious turn of all, and Elizabeth Dermot Walsh executes it brilliantly.

A tasty appetizer, then, for Friel's own Afterplay, a meatier piece that reprises two Chekhov characters some 20 years after we last saw them. We revisit Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya and Andrey Prozorov, the profligate sib in the famed Three Sisters.

What elevates this hour-long tete-a-tete in a spectral Moscow cafe is the acting summit between two decorated pros, Penelope Wilton and John Hurt. In such fine hands, it's hard to say which of these well-mannered folk is the more frustratingly pathetic. Is it Elena, with her ridiculous devotion to a man who hardly realizes she exists, or is it Andrey, unable to break away from his stultifying country life and deteriorating terribly as a result?

We're truly fortunate to see both. If the stormy coupling between Gregory and Elena is an absurdly precipitous application of the carpe diem ethos, then the fastidious failure of Andrey and Elena to connect is a more emotionally compelling endorsement of enlightened opportunism.

Opera/Music Theatre

Thumbs up for the two marquee operas at this year's festival. The Flying Dutchman gains approval with the imposing vocalism of Mark Delavan as the eternally roving seaman and Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet's fervid Senta, the sassy maiden determined to release him from his centuries of suffering.

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