SAWDUST PALACE: Deadpan but sexually suggestive.
The Spiegeltent at Bard College fits into two big trucks and can be raised in a couple of days by a crew of workers. But it isn’t your average Big Top. Imported from Belgium and installed on the Bard campus for the summer, the Spiegeltent houses a small thrust stage surrounded by folding chairs and outer rings of tables and booths. With its mirrors and stained-glass inlays, its woodwork and swags of crimson, the Spiegeltent evokes some popular café in fin-de-siècle Europe. Susan Marshall and Company opened it last week with a cabaret show, Sawdust Palace, that will run through this Sunday as part of Summerscape 2007 at Bard.
There’s also an impressive line-up of theater and musical events in the Fisher Performing Arts Center, and it was kicked off last weekend by Doug Varone and Dancers. Designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2003, the spectacular Fisher Center is like some giant floribunda rose made of sculpted steel over an exposed industrial-grid superstructure. Its assertively modern fantasy shape, the æsthetic opposite of the Spiegeltent, houses two concert-hall theaters, a vaulting, coiling lobby space, and ancillary facilities. For the audience, the Fisher Center promises grand, exquisitely calibrated artworks, masterworks. The Spiegeltent offers intimate entertainment, gemütlich conversation, a drink, a bite to eat, nothing fancy.
Spearheaded by Bard’s extraordinary musician-president, Leon Botstein, Summerscape and the Bard Music Festival this year are foraging around the theme of “Edward Elgar and His World.” The composer’s long lifetime (1857–1934) encompassed a huge chunk of culture and cultural change, and it’s being represented this summer by concerts, films, operas, and academic presentations highlighting, among others, George Bernard Shaw, J.M.W. Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, Gilbert & Sullivan, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, and the greats of modern English music. It’s enough to make you move to the shores of the Hudson for the next six weeks.
Neither Susan Marshall nor Doug Varone appeared to be immersed in Elgariana, but Elgar’s music was played live in the dances they made with commissions from the Fisher Center. Sawdust Palace, a 90-minute program of “featured acts,” displayed a reserved but romantic sensibility that suited the composer who could write heroic symphonies and sentimental parlor songs and everything in between.
As Sawdust Palace begins, it seems self-consciously deadpan, postmodern, even introverted. Stephen Gosling takes the audience unawares, bowing stiffly by the baby grand piano, and Petra van Noort steps into the space wearing a slinky silver gown. Gosling follows her, and they slowly turn to face each other. He puts his arms around her and picks her straight up. She doesn’t move as her carries her to the piano. He sits down at the keyboard with her in his lap, and she wraps her legs around him. He begins to play Elgar’s Salut d’amour. He has to shift her slightly when she gets in the way of his hands; she occasionally nuzzles his ear.
The following 19 skits, to Elgar tunes and recorded kitsch, are all done in this unperturbed manner, and to varying degrees they’re all sexually suggestive. Luke Miller stands in place making huge, thrusting, meaningless gestures, interrupting himself to take gulps of water and finally splashing what’s left in the pitcher on himself. Kristen Hollinsworth tries to mop up after him (the music is a trumpet mambo recorded by Pérez Prado), but she’s hooked to a wire. She won’t give up swiping at the floor with a chenille towel even when Miller is pushing her through the air.