Monday, August 12, 2013

Edinburgh Fringe Review 2013: Finally the women are taking over

The first show I saw got me so excited I floated through the rest of the day. The tag line is Samuel Becket meets Larry King in a new play by CJ Hopkins. Two actors, 70 minutes, a putative pundit interviewing an author in a Washington insider Sunday morning talk show. It's called The Extremists. It starts and quickly the cascade of bullshit starts washing over you. Every hollow buzz word and button pressing, the speculation about the extremists, who they were, how we could protect ourselves by keeping our heads down and not thinking about it. The dialogue is both rapid-fire and repetitive. But then almost imperceptible it turns, the cascades change, the intention change, the true hearts of the humans come out. It was a little like watching a Sizek philosophy lecture, a little like watching an Anonymous video. They discuss the fact that no one has successfully transformed the state without violence in the past. (Ignoring my beloved Havel I might add).  I was stirred and inspired and provoked. You may still be able to get tickets for this one. It is at Assembly Roxy.

Then to The Events, the new David Greig play at The Traverse about a nice lesbian minister who is dealing with the aftermath of being the teacher in a mass shooting at her show choir/community drop in center. It was good, it was ingenius. It was really dark. It was the kind of play I discuss in the lobby after and tell people what I thought it meant and they get despondent and then I feel bad that I've shown them that much darkness. But the thing is, the choir was not healing choirmaster. The play opens with a choir - and they use an American college choir for this, not professional actors, singing their hearts out in the Glee version of War! What is it good for? as she sits in a funk. It ends after a striking retelling of the events of the shooting with the choir singing - moved to tears by the experience of the soaring melodies - but  even as these college kids have glistening tears backlighting their carefully applied mascara, for the audience the singing has no healing power - it's been plunged into the falsity of Glee. Its surfacy, fake community feel was actually creepy.

From there to Tom Wrigglesworth  - I saw two excellent comedians try their hand at confessional, autobiographical one man shows, Wrigglesworth and Phil Nichol. They were perfectly good shows and had their moments, but to me that genre risks being maudlin by its nature and, well, their grief is their grief and their stories are their stories but I wanted either one of two things: either more self-knowledge revealed for the audience or more laughs.

Then to my surprise LOVE (I always know that Assembly is going to be good and Traverse is going to be amazing but who knows at some of these other places) we saw Fleabag, a show by a company called Dry White. One twenty-something woman recounts her career, romance and friendships in London. It just could have been very boring, but it was riveting and beautiful and true. The Lena Dunham theme emerged: that women's friendships matter more to them than their romances, but they will sacrifice the former for the latter every time. The economic wasteland that is London, the frank review of the pleasures and perils of running a cafe with a guinea pig. The performer -Phoebe - is so mesmerizing. Maybe it takes a whole theatre company to create a stunning one person show. This generation is so listless and consumerist and over-awed by the male gaze. This generation is the same as me. This is interesting to think about.

The next morning up and early to Baby Wants Candy - an improv group that is offering a couple two hour workshops on improvising musical theatre. I have a musical theatre project I will work on in the near future and so it was great to get a glimpse of the scaffolding of form and  theory they use. Baby Wants Candy improvised musicals are a hot ticket - and for good reason. These guys get three seconds from the audience suggestions of place and time to the opening number. It's intimidating but if you are enlightened enough to be free of pride, then it is super fun.

I really liked getting an opportunity to practice "Yes, and. . .".  That is the answer to everything.

Then a delightful lunch at The Living Room on George Street and the decadent low-down trip to SpaceNK and we were at Grounded at the Traverse. Reams have been written about the brilliance of Grounded. A one-woman show - a fighter pilot grounded by pregnancy becomes a drone pilot in Las Vegas and slowly loses her mind. My ever informed lovely Fringe companion Ellen let me in a little fact: post traumatic stress disorder is higher in drone pilots than in combat soldiers. They don't know why, but the theory is that a fair fight is less stressful than playing God. This woman was a phenomenal character, Tom Cruise in Top Gun but as a hot blonde woman who loves AC/DC. The way that the screen and she merged, and the horrific monotony and evil of what she was asked to do broke her down but the way she chose to tell the story was what killed you. Beautiful imagery, acting just incredible. Should be on the must-see list of anyone who is wondering what staring at a screen all day is doing to the minds of humans. You will never get tickets in this festival, but if it comes near you don't miss it. Probably the best thing.

We then watched 20 minutes of Pendulums Bargain Emporium which seemed so fiendishly interesting and good that I really didn't want to leave, but I had fallen for the hype of another show. A show called The Play That Went Wrong. The rumor is it was signed straight to the West End before it even opened in Edinburgh. It is pretty hilarious and I think it will be a big hit and it is just the thing to bring people to see. A play within a play at a junior college. The theatre director's last chance, mayhem and missteps and on-purpose amateur acting of the most hilarious calibre. Sit near the front. First because there are a lot of dead bodies who can't sit still (we couldn't see them at the back) and second because the lines are very blurred and tekkies come down from the light booth to mess with the lights hanging right above the audience's heads before the show uttering unreassuring curses and expressions of ignorance. Some of the moments were exquisite. I love to laugh my head off. I love the old gags. I loved how it played with and subverted all comedy expectations and gave them new life. A locked door, a falling picture, a misplaced prop. Two shout-outs; first to a foppish white boy romantic lead who delivered all his lines like Kanye West and second to the best on-stage concussions I have ever witnessed. Also judicious use of snow.

Across town to St. Stephens, a venue I have shunned since a bad experience with Eastern European dancers fanning feathers randomly across a stage there in 2005. I overcame my issues to see On The Other Hand which was a circular, feminine, painful storytelling of four women in vignettes unrelated or related, which ingenius sets, and great theatricality. The plight of women, the endless struggle for identity, what we give to our children and what we are ourselves. It was a mushy round hole of a space to be in, foreign in a way, but I was glad to be there. It was very different from the rest of the Fringe, and that is a good thing.

The next morning to Ciara at 10:00 am at the Traverse. You won't get tickets and it's pronounced Kee-rah, not See-air-a which is how I pronounced it until the show started.   It starts as a rich Karen-Walker-esque art gallery owner from Glasgow telling her story and morphs into a Tarantino organized crime thriller.  Ciara is the daughter of a crime boss and heroin dealer, proud and ashamed, but it is the juicy narrative and compelling performance that makes this such a joy.

Besides Fleabag, my other surpose LOVE was Uncanny Valley. I didn't know what the Uncanny Valley was until after the play was over. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.

This was a love story between a robot and Wilson Grey, an orphan whose parents had died in a storm. It was told by three robot-human hybrids who had been sent from the very far future to tell the story of Wilson, who was the most important human in their history. How I wish I could attend the Jacques le Coq school of mime and theatre from whence so much of the genius I have seen on the UK stage has sprung.

First, in devised theatre style the boundaries were blurred. The female robot who played the romantic lead greeted people as they came in. Except Ellen and I were deeply, deeply engrossed in a discussion about the surrealist nature of drafting commercial contracts. Suddenly we looked up and there was a perfectly robotic human gazing deeply into our eyes with affection. That's the Fringe, baby! That's why you shouldn't miss it. These moments are just so weird and wonderful. Wilson Grey, the human orphan, becomes an apprentice weatherman to Chris Diamond - an exquisitely realized weatherman/media personality.

The scenes where Wilson and the robot first interact are too magical for even me to spoil.

I will tell you about two scenes. Wilson seeks knowledge of his cyborg love (gifted to him by his uncle) at a museum of robots. He sees the first robot, devoid of taste and feeling. Then he meets the laborer robot, skilled only at work. Finally he meets a robot used in therapy that is only skilled at mirroring the interior emotional life of the person it touches. The robot touches Wilson and then screams in agony and fear relentlessly. I loved that because if the robot touched me, that is exactly what it would do too. I felt for Wilson.

And I felt for his bravery when he hijacked the Chris Diamond weather show to sing Mona Lisa to his beloved robot. We saw the robot watching it on television and realizing that he loved her, and that this was just for her. And we knew how brave he was to sing it. So I am in the second row crying my eyes out at this when Wilson catches my eye as he sings. He gives me a look that says - "I am so proud of myself that this is moving you to tears.". I roll my eyes and shoot him a narrow side-eye that says, "You're not that good a singer, it is just the context that is making me cry and I don't appreciate you crowing about it.".  Now that is some theatre! But actually his voice was dreamy.

Which made it somehow harder when the robot broke his heart because of the Uncanny Valley she knew was coming.

The thing about Uncanny Valley was that it hinted at being a trilogy. I definitely wanted more.

I always want more.

Until next year, signing off.

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