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Sky isn't falling at Spoleto Festival USA



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Dense accents such as Kujawska's impel us at times to watch Don John like a foreign opera without supertitles. Iceland native Gisli Orn Gardarsson brings a tall, lean, Cheyenne Jackson physicality to Don John's debauchery and dissipation, but Rice wisely limits his lines as he collects his trophy panties. The verbiage void is partially filled in by Dom Lawton, who narrates as a Paperboy between his lead vocals. Mike Shepherd flits nervously around as Nobby, a needier case than Leporello. Masquerading as John, Nobby suffers the more degrading humiliation. Capped by a flash of his Polaroid, of course.

Like the nebishy Alan, starchy Derek offers John scant competition. American lit students might ignore Don Ottavio and view Craig Johnson's hand-wringing ineffectuality more as a latter-day Reverend Dimmesdale as he works out of his mini house trailer church. There is much to ponder when Rice has Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, instinctual yet principled as Anna, wear a blouse stained with her father's blood long after her midnight misadventure. Anna thought -- or wanted to think -- that it was her husband blindfolding and ravishing her. That bloody blouse encourages us to think of her shame in Scarlet Letter terms.

As for Elvira's unquenchable obsession with John, Amy Marston may remind you of Edvard Munch's iconic Scream. Modernity hangs heavy on this Mozart makeover, with none of the romantic chemistry retained by Tristan & Yseult, and it isn't pretty. Don John mesmerizes with its tawdry, vivacious style, occasionally hilarious but always deliciously dark. (Through June 7)

Story of a Rabbit -- Greeting every member of the audience as they entered the theater, writer/performer Hugh Hughes was ingratiating even before his Story began. Nor did he retreat into a shell after he and his diffident tech partner, Aled Williams, began their narrative. Hughes cordially served tea to one lucky ticketholder at the beginning of the show and to another at a convenient resting spot.

Our host waxed philosophical at several points in his story and geometrical at others. Along with lights and AV equipment, Aled picked up a guitar and sang two or three intentionally horrid songs. Visual aids used by Hughes during his tale were similarly cheesy: a clay rabbit, a telephone, and a doll that alternately represented himself and his father in assorted demos.

Actually, two stories weirdly intersected, both dealing with DEATH, the word conveniently projected on the upstage screen as the show began. The main story was really the death of Hugh's father and Hugh's hurried, confused journey to the funeral. Hugh's brief stewardship of a neighbor's rabbit was secondary -- but fatal! -- connecting surreally with the funeral narrative at a key moment.

While it was consistently entertaining to grapple with the question of whether we were dealing with a simpleton or a condescending wise guy, Rabbit hopped over its opportunity to powerfully break through the fourth wall. That could have been accomplished if Hughes had given us a better glimpse of who his father was and the uniqueness of their relationship. Like the geometric diagram on the flip pad helping us to ponder the mystery of his father's last moments on earth, the core of Hughes' confessional remained two-dimensional.


• Louise -- Composer/librettist Gustave Charpentier's story is simple enough. Our poet hero Julien has written to the father of his dear Louise, beseeching the hand of his darling daughter in marriage. Dad and Mom, both wholesome blue-collar types, despise Julien's unindustrious Bohemian profession almost as much as his raffish Parisian lifestyle. When neither Julien's courtesy nor Louise's ardent entreaties are enough to secure Pappa's blessing, Louise keeps her promise and elopes with her serenading poet -- until she learns from a distraught Mamma that her departure has made Dad gravely ill. Louise's folks still want to possess and dictate to their daughter, but love and the irresistible lure of Paris are victorious.

A thin storyline for a four-act opera, no doubt, and Charpentier isn't nearly as adept at infusing the glamour of Paris into his plot as Puccini's La Boheme, evolved from an Henri Murger novel by a pair of skilled librettists. More annoying is Charpentier's counterintuitive insistence that Louise's parents live in the Paris they despise, close neighbors of the infatuated Julien. So the couple must elope away to their Parisian love nest, but not so far that Mamma cannot easily find them.

That might be a little disorienting to first-time viewers who haven't confirmed these geographical anomalies in a detailed synopsis beforehand -- or perused stage director Sam Helfrich's illuminating program notes. Unfortunately, the Spoleto singers and design team aren't consistently successful in executing Helfrich's concept.

Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland spreads the parents' apartment -- flatly and drably -- across nearly the entire Gaillard Auditorium stage. Then the entire family huddles in wee corner, none visible full face to the audience, around a table barely sufficient for serving cocktails at a sidewalk cafe. To make Louise's homelife even more stifling, bass baritone Louis Otey sings the father's music with an unrelenting mix of gruffness and querulousness, compressing the arc of his development. Barbara Dever gives us a more three-dimensional portrait of the less-sympathetic Mom but without quite the same vocal purity we hear from Otey.

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