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Delinquent Dispatch from Fringe

Image: The Simple Things in Life

My sincerest apologies…I’m a little delinquent here with my second “dispatch.” I was operating at a fairly severe sleep deficit for a bit there.  But I’m back and ready to share some last highlights from a whirlwind trip to my favorite European city (a title I’ve also been known to bestow on Budapest when I want to sound a little more exotic).

Best Thing Ever

On Tuesday, I saw the best thing ever.  I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to speak in hyperbole at times.  And I’ve generally tried to temper my enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the purposes of work-related blog posts.  So, with that initial caveat, I hereby reaffirm my initial statement and proclaim 1927’s “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets” as The Best Thing Ever. 1927 is a UK-based company that mixes live music, performance, and animation.  Inspired by silent film, this piece has a “live” cast of three actors interacting with animated ones, including a posse of really, really poorly-behaved children, a horde of cockroaches, and cat named Mr. Meow, all residents of a decrepit tenement block known as “the Bayou.”  It’s very rare that I’m able to fully disengage with the world around me and lose myself in an experience, but this performance was so cleverly and expertly choreographed that I actually felt a little like I was trapped in a cartoon.  Rest assured that I’ll be badgering a certain Director of Programming ‘round these parts to consider this one for possible inclusion in a future season.

That National Theatre

On my last day in Edinburgh, I managed to squeeze in one more show and “experience” before rushing (understatement) to the airport. (I admit—I harbored a secret hope of not making my flight and being granted an extra night in the city.)

I made my way to the Traverse Theatre to see another National Theatre production.  Not the National Theatre (of London, whose delayed broadcast screenings UMS presents throughout the season in partnership with the Michigan Theater), nor the National Theatre of Scotland (whose “Strange Undoing of Prudencia Heart” I espoused in my last post).  This time, it was the National Theatre Wales and their production of “The Dark Philosophers,” an adaptation of the life and stories of Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas.  Gwyn wrote some dark stuff, most of it tinged with a humorous edge.   The setting for this piece is a Welsh mining community, the mountain referenced throughout represented by a plot of wardrobes, dressers, and the like.  The tone of the play reminded me a bit of Martin McDonagh’s “Cripple of Inishmaan” performed here last season by the Druid Theatre Company.  Previously unfamiliar with Gwyn Thomas (as I was with Martin McDonagh), I wasn’t sure if was I allowed to laugh.  I wanted to.  The knowing audience around me eventually did.  And, similar to “Cripple,” I was left with a sense of the insular nature of a community mostly isolated from those surrounding it—the character and cadence of the local life different from anywhere else.

The Simple Things in Life

The last thing I went to was “The Simple Things in Life.” Housed in the Royal Botanic Garden, five artists were tasked with creating an experience celebrating the simple things in life, each to be housed within a small shed.  The goal: to create “a haven within the hubbub of the festival.”  First stop: “Lost in Words.” This shed, created by Lewis Gibson, was an exercise is looking (through viewfinders), listening (to calming soundscapes), and reading (a weaving of text excerpts from famous stories…Moby Dick, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Nightingale and the Thorn).  It was a nice reprieve from the inner voice inside my head, a constant companion that at the time was worrying/hoping I was going to miss my upcoming/looming flight.

Snorkelling Team

The journey ended at the London Snorkeling Team’s shed, the location of The 2011 Annual Science Demonstration and Space Fête.  The London Snorkelling Team are funny fellows.  Funny fellows that play music and draw cartoons that are projected and “animated” on a standard-issue classroom overhead projector.  You know, the kind used in the olden days.   Audience members were given a glimpse into the workings of an interesting new take on a particle accelerator.  Not one tasked with answering the greatest mysteries in the Universe, no.  In this instance, the particles to be collided included a pig and a cow, the intended result being a shower of meat.  Ludicrous and fun.  Just like the animated fight between Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.  As good a place as any to end things.

Dispatch from Fringe

Oh goodness me!  I’m back in Edinburgh!  During the Fringe!  The largest arts festival in the world!  It’s been 9 years exactly since my last (and first) visit, when I came as part of the American High School Theatre Festival.  A recent high school graduate at the time, I was tasked with running the light board for a musical version of the Ugly Duckling called Honk! Yikes!  (This is reminding me that my 10 year high school reunion is nigh.  Double yikes!!)

I arrived only yesterday, but I feel like I’ve been here for ages.   That’s what happens when something literally takes over a city.  If you’ve never been, the Fringe is to Edinburgh as a football game at the Big House is to Ann Arbor.  But sustained for a month!  The energy is at an all-time high from morning ‘til, well, it never stops!

I’ve seen exactly 8 shows as of now, 11:37pm local time, Monday, August the 22nd.  6 of them today.  Yes.  6.  And some of them more “experience” than “show.”  Here’s a little taste.

The first show I saw was the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at the Ghillie Dhu, a local pub.  Written by playwright David Grieg, the story follows an uptight academic named Prudencia as she travels out of town for a conference, and learns to loosen up along the way.  How this happens is the crux of the action, the fun, and the heartache, some of which can be seen in this youtube video.  The National Theatre of Scotland has had some hits on their hands as of late—most recently in the U.S. with their production of Black Watch. If the buzz surrounding this one at the Fringe is any indication, you just might see this one at a pub near you.  I sure hope so.

Today’s marathon of shows included the premiere of a work in progress called A Reply to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011 by incendiary political theater-makers, Belarus Free Theatre.  BFT was founded in 2005 by a husband and wife team in response to the pressure and censorship of Europe’s last surviving dictatorship.  Under constant threat of persecution, the group’s rehearsals and performances are often held in secret , and have at times been broken up by police.  In their short history, members of the company have faced harassment, beatings, and even arrest.  In this piece, the audience was given a glimpse into Minsk today from the artists’ perspective.  And it was, in a word, brutal.  They’re a brave group.  And their acting is likewise brave.  It’ll be interesting to see how the work develops.

Later in the evening, I was able to catch David Leddy’s newest work called The Untitled Love Story. Some of you may remember David’s Susurrus made an appearance in Ann Arbor this past year out at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.  Though this piece was housed in a more traditional theatrical setting, the hallmarks of David’s style of writing rang loud and clear.  His knack for weaving seemingly disparate storylines into one cohesive production is astounding and the story all the more powerful because of it.  And, as with Susurrus, the use of music is crucial—and used to great effect.   Here are the basics:  the setting is Venice.  The characters are known only as the Collector, the Historian, the Priest, and the Writer—two men and two women who have all suffered/will come to suffer great loss.  It’s not all sad though!  I promise!

The night ended with a short 15 minute “live video” experience for one called And the Birds Fell From the Sky by Brighton-based Il Pixel Rosso.  In a nutshell, I joined a group of nomadic criminal clowns (collectively known as the Faruk) for a car ride.  Crimes were committed.  Birds fell from the sky.  I was supremely freaked out.  And I totally loved it.  Logistically, it involved an impressive pair of video goggles synced up with an in-ear audio track.  An actor unseen to the audience member provided the other tactile sensations—smells, touch, movement .  All in all, a deep and bizarre Fringe experience.  The best kind.

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Have you been to the Fringe? Are you at the Fringe now? Share your experiences below.

Part 2: Delinquent Dispatch from Fringe