Monday, November 2, 2015

Edinburgh Quick Cuts

I reviewed only a handful of the 70 shows I saw at EdFringe. So here are my links to those reviews and just a few notes on works I didn't get to write about otherwise (and I have a separate post about Forest Fringe):

Actress: There were a couple of shows in the festival this year that looked at female performance and the audience’s gaze on female performers (Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me by Made in China, Wrecking Ball by Action Hero). Actress by Sleepwalk Collective was the first of these shows that I saw. Actress was more focused on the female performer as an object we use until she runs out of words to say. Language was a reoccurring theme in the shows I saw this year (Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons and Can I Start Over Again), but Actress looked at it from the perspective of the engine for the life of this object and once the lines were said and the words used up the object has not other purpose except to expire. Led by iara Solano Arana who looks like a tattooed pixieish Alice in Wonderland she leads us into a world filled with text and emojis (maybe the first time I’ve seen emojis used on stage). We spend some time thinking about how we all are lifetime of language and a history of words.

A Reason to Talk; An unusual documentary based theater piece about one mother and daughter who struggle to speak to each other.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Counting Stars: A bittersweet love story of two toilet attendants and the life they lead as immigrants in London in the ever increasingly politically heated and racially divided city.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Crash:  A mysterious banker who has suffered a loss and the way in which he pulls himself back together after a trauma.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Down and Out in Paris and London: A look at poverty in the past and now and how things have hardly changed.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Happy Birthday Without You: After seeing a lot of performance art and a lot of heartfelt, serious work about daughters and mothers, Happy Birthday Without You skewers all of that with a big, brassy song in its heart. Star and writer Sonia Jalaly as Violet Fox invokes the spirits of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, and Julie Andrews as a way to celebrate Violet's birthday and confront Violet's mother’s failures as a parent--all through her ART. Maybe after so many dark shows about grief and sadness I needed someone to lampoon the super-earnestness of self-confessional theater. After room after room of monologues with no props and a lot of darkness, Happy Birthday Without You offers darkly-comedic version of that (with a lot of props and goodie bags). Jalaly has an incredible voice for mimicry (seriously if anyone revives The Rise and Fall of Little Voice this woman should be top on your list). I laughed so hard at one point I distracted Jalaly...or Violet. I just could not stop laughing at a suitcase called the Suitcase of Sorrow.

The Human Ear: So boring. Don't even click on this.  (I received a complimentary ticket).
Iphigenia in Splott: Gary Owen’s play Iphigenia in Splott makes no apologies about being a play about class, politics, and austerity. With a blistering ferocity and a heroine who dngaf this mesmerizing play will make you furious and heart-broken. With a star performance from Sophie Melville, as Effie, a girl in a forgotten place, with no future, with no real home, with no real love. But she's self-possessed, aggressive, and when she catches the eye of a soldier...and he catches hers back, she is led down a new path where she opens herself up to the pain and the suffering she's long been covering up with anger.

But Effie's life does not go as she plans. You could imagine both being terrified of bumping into this wild and unruly girl on the street and wanting to give her a giant hug when everything around her goes to shit. This fury and vulnerability all in the same person makes you invested in everything she is doing. You can’t take your eyes off of her but you also know things cannot work out well for her. This is Iphigenia after all. Queasily waiting for the tragedy to kick in you find yourself caring more and more about this place you did not even know existed. Now only if maybe politicians did the same.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons : How much of our personality, our stories, and our lives are captured in the words we use. If we suddenly had a finite number of words to use a day how would that impact our relationships and identities. This is the question of Sam Steiner's work performed and directed by students at Warwick University. It's a delicious exercise in a near future that feels like it could happen just around the corner. And the devastating reality that the two characters in the play face as their words begin to chip away at who they are and what they want when its all said and done comes swiftly and effectively.

Molly:  A really intriguing, stylish work about a sociopath.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

On Track:  Feminism on a treadmill. For realz.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour:  A raucous play with music about a gaggle of Catholic high school choir girls who go wild one afternoon in Edinburgh.  (I received a complimentary ticket).
Daniel Kitson's Polyphony;  A meta-theatrical tale about legacy, friendship, the voices in our heads, and the changing face of our own understanding as we age.
Raz: A wild night out on the town for a partying man leads him to think about things he doesn't want to.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

Ross and Rachel: You did not need to be a fan of Friends to enjoy this dark slice of our cultural obsession with OTPs. Considering the sitcom characters ten years on after the show ended and living out their lives in the shadows of other people’s expectations James Fritz’s single-hander play forces us to confront the desires we project upon others, to analyze our complicity in seeking out fairy tales, and to look at something we thought we knew from a different angle. Take the situation-comedy out of the scenario and what a morass we all bear some responsibility for. The play does a particularly great job looking at male fantasy, the collective consciousness of the audience, and what compels us to demand “perfect” endings for our stories. A great piece of writing and the stripped down production by Thomas Martin (inside a way too hot shipping container) deserves another life beyond the Fringe.
This Will End Badly:  An exciting, dark work about men and how they cope with pain.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan: If Iphigenia in Splott had a brother who went off to university it might be Johnny Bevan. Middle-class Nick meets working-class Johnny at university and Johnny leads him into a world of performance poetry, radical politics, violence, and poverty. Nick has set off to University looking for something beyond the sports, drink, and girls. But it takes Johnny to pull Nick out of his coddled, comfortable upbringing. But it is when Nick, now a 40 something journalist, looks back on his friendship with Johnny that the evolution of the class system in the UK and the politics of the past 20 years are brought into focus. Pushing beyond the ideals of youth, this play leaps into the adult reality of inequality and as it does so it scrapes at your innards.

Luke Wright wrote and performed this poetry fueled monologue. With a torrent of words the world of Nick and Johnny are brought to life. The changing nature of their friendship, the sexiness of exploring the unknown and the harsh reality of coping with adult issues as a teen.  His colorful characters were so rich I was painfully reminded of that moment upon graduating University when I realized my roommate and I were leaving school with the same degree but with her family’s wealth her journey would be far more comfortable and far less precarious than my own. She had a safety net I would never have and it allowed her the flexibility to experiment with jobs, career paths, travel, and further education. A painful reminder that the American dream is wracked with inequality from the get-go. And sure luck, talent, personality, and a million other things go into why people starting in the “same place” and end up somewhere else. But the hurdles in the way certainly play a part.

Women’s Hour: When asked what my favorite show of the festival, this is the one that leaps to mind every time. Poking fun at an actual Radio 4 show, Sh!t Theatre hosts a feminist variety show which looks at what is even “women’s programming” and how equality for women in the world remains an uphill battle. Remarking on the luxury tax places on sanitary products (seriously!), the lack of lines of dialogue for women in movies, internet trolls trading in graphic misogyny, and gender specific items that really need not be, these young artists hurl themselves into this show with wild abandon and it’s funny, fierce, and educational. There are also roller-skates, crumpets, and SHOES. The exuberance and honesty of the work coupled with its vital message made me wish we had more than an hour. I need these laughs but I also needed this anger. This piece held the right balance of both. “For delicate minds in delicate times,” indeed.

John: The Voices All Around Us

Somehow this review got left in my I'm reviving it now...with some spoilers.

Annie Baker peels back the layers of a relationship in crisis in her new play, John. With an eerie tone, discussions of the supernatural and the religious, John may feel like the abruptly interrupted ghost story the character Elias tells during the play. But Baker's real focus is the tension in that disruption. Along with the keen eye of director Sam Gold, Baker and Gold craft an entire world from the incomplete stories told, the dangling sentences uttered, and all the things in relationships left unspoken but that fill the space of our minds. This is not a ghost story in the traditional sense—the hauntings are by words and ways in which people and objects change you forever.

Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau) may like spooky stories but their endeavor to chase the ghosts of Gettysburg is just a distraction from the real difficulties they face with each other. They have stopped into a bed and breakfast for a couple of days on a drive from Columbus, Ohio back to NYC. Mertis (Georgia Engel) is their host--a cheery, sugar-free woman intent on making sure they have a good time. But Mertis carries with her a quiet sadness and a deep empathy for this couple.

Mertis is the one who presents this story to us by peeling back the curtain on the stage or covering it back up again with each scene change. Mertis speaks of mystical watchers, launches into Latin, and writes florid prose about sunsets in her journal. She has a husband we never see. Her best friend Genevieve (Lois Smith), an older blind woman dependent on her nephew, comes over to eat Vienna fingers and tells stories of her troubled mind. Personal philosophies of love, life, and what is bigger than we are circle all these characters as well as the mysteries of this house, this world, and the secrets of our own hearts.

But at it's core John focuses on Elias and Jenny fighting to keep their relationship alive when perhaps what they had has already departed--we may be watching the ghost of their relationship--echoes of what once was played out by muscle memory.

We watch Jenny trying to be accommodating even when she's in agony with menstrual cramps. Elias is short-tempered, over-sensitive, and a little over-bearing. Jenny tells lies. Elias can’t do anything but tell the truth, whether it’s pleasant or not. But as more information trickles out about each of them, their behavior gets a slightly different gloss. The more you know someone the harder it is to condemn them outright. Our understanding and allegiances shift ever so slightly. And our assumptions continue to be torpedoed.

Baker spends a lot of time with these characters looking at the objects they embed with power. From childhood toys to memories, these things, ideas, and voices in our minds can have the same power over us as people. We let them get in our heads. We bend ourselves toward them. We watch bits of ourselves slip away. And sometimes in a relationship to lose a bit of yourself to become a couple is a positive. In this play the examples of the voices taking hold in people’s minds (Genevieve’s controlling ex-husband, Jenny’s American Girl Doll Samantha) are negative and destructive. But sometimes you can't know until you are inside it whether losing yourself to someone else is a positive or a negative.

The play reaches a peak on this theme with Genevieve’s curtain breaking speech (the one time Mertis is not in control and Genevieve pops out from the curtain in the middle of one of the intermissions). Genevieve takes a moment of our time to explain that she's reached an age where she stopped hearing the voices of others in her head and paid no mind to what others thought of her. This release from those voices becomes a liberation and the speech is unnerving in it's precision and cutting honesty. It left me weeping.

Mimi Lien's hyper-realistic set of a B&B overrun with teddy bears and Christmas tat was far too much like my own mother's living-room for my liking (I mean it was really accurate). But shows a keen eye for decorative storytelling and adds another layer to the mystery of Mertis. It is the external expression of a kitschy B&B but nothing about Mertis quite fits this environment. Sound design by Bray Poor makes great use of the "upstairs" off-stage space where noises, arguments, and conversations are muffled and communicated to us with intentional obfuscation. The house in the play becomes another character who makes no one comfortable--the rooms are too cold, the spirits within are unsettled, and even with the external trappings of a home it is not one.

If the secondary goal of scary movies is to end up clutching the person next to you to feel safe, here Baker's creepy and atmospheric John makes the arms of the person you are with the last place you will feel true comfort. John shows that we need not fear the mystical when the familiar can do the most harm.