The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (or just the Fringe) is an international theater, music, comedy, and dance festival that runs every August. It's the world's biggest performing arts event. Per the program, "2014 will see 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues across Scotland's capital city."
The Fringe is my ideal theater experience for several reasons. Everything is relatively walkable, the variety and the quality of the productions is extremely high (with the exception of some lemons, but that's all part of the experience), and it's fairly cheap. If you're used to US theater prices, UK prices even on the West End are a damn revelation. (Holla, £5 Globe standing tickets, and hail, £12 National Theatre day tickets—sing, muse, of limited visibility spots, of the affordable upper upper upper circle!). But the Fringe in particular has an ethos and culture of affordability. Sometimes a famous comedian will go a bit rogue and jack tickets for something up above the £12 mark, but it's not considered the done thing. Tickets for amateur productions and children's theater can be especially cheap. There are 2-for-1 days, Friends of the Fringe memberships, and a Half Price Hut. By these and other means, you can thoroughly work down the price tag for your visit. Fringe shows typically last about an hour (though many full-length productions also run), and this produces well-oiled, efficient plays—don’t think of it as slicing Hamlet to ribbons, think of it as an opportunity to produce interesting, fit-for-purpose new work or a really effective production of something more amenable to being condensed.
So why is the Fringe interesting for the SFF fan? There are literally hundreds of genre productions, for a start—interesting new and old work. Even if you live in a big city, it can be difficult to attend even major, established works like Angels in America, for example. I chased the opportunity to see half of the two-play set in the flesh for the better part of an actual decade, and only ended up seeing it thanks to the 2013 Fringe. The Fringe has a broad range of offerings, from musicals and stand up about Doctor Who, to hard SF plays, to urban fantasy, to lush Arthuriana. There are even interactive experiences: last year a massive installation enabled participants to drive out of the city and colonize a new world. I wanted to go with my siblings, but there were only two tickets left, and it felt appropriate to give them to my much-younger brother and sister while I stayed behind on dying Earth.
Lastly, theatricality and stagecraft can themselves be fantastic. If you're looking for that genre "sense of wonder" (not a term I normally like, but there you go), the atmosphere and the effects of participatory, promenade, or spectacular, beautiful stagings are very probably going to provide you with that.
I was talking to a fannish friend about the Fringe, and she expressed some hesitation about going because she'd assumed the event was super hip and she'd feel insufficiently artsy or trendy. The thing is, though, that the Fringe has a familiar convention-esque vibe. It's people who are very into producing and/or enjoying their cultural Thing. It's great for kids, with its glut of good children's theatre, and ideal for mixed groups—you can split off and do your own thing and come together as your interests align.
I'm going to be reviewing a few of the many, many relevant Fringe productions on this year in this compilation article. The companies behind them may be based near you, or may be touring with these and similar works, traveling somewhere you can easily access. (It's a very international festival, so if you're currently sneering because nothing ever comes to your beloved Lichtenstein, don't be so hasty!) If you see anything you like or are planning a vacation to somewhere theater-rich, it's worth looking up the companies and their plans.
CalArts Festival Theater's Pomegranate Jam tells the Hades and Persephone story through dance, puppetry, shadows and music. Pomegranate Jam (whether "jam" refers to jam sessions or to preserves, the title doesn't really do much work) features a Persephone who chooses to go with her lover, thus displaying more agency than a straight-up rendition of the myth might imply. However, during my four-year undergraduate career at Iowa I (really occasionally) attended the graduate Writer's Workshop fiction and poetry readings. My scanty attendance was more than enough for me to realize that (at least when I was there) every female first-year poetry MFA student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop had a Persephone song cycle, and every one of them thought it was a new idea. Oh the thousand sex-positive Persephones I have known! Forgive me, you lovely, talented, and terribly earnest women—we had a drinking game. "Persephone wants the D" was two sips—and (I say this as a queer woman, mind) an extra if this Reclaiming was somehow redolent of lesbianism.
That essentially sums up the production's strengths and failings. It does a competent job at things I have seen a lot, and I’m not sure what its special contribution to the world is. The dancing was skillful and sensuous, romantic and suggestive without resorting to obvious carnality. The various elements of the staging played with distance and scale in interesting and effective ways, combining figures with puppets and backgrounds to good effect. The background/magic lantern work was lovely (though I wasn't enamored of the shadow puppets themselves). The changing seasons, for example, were represented by color-changing foliage and new growth pushing through, flowers disturbing shadow-blades of grass.
Persephone and her mother might have been more clearly distinguished (they had somewhat different skirts). This obscured the action flow at key points. Without knowing the story well (and you can’t assume an audience is savvy about Western myths at this international festival), I'm not sure I'd have followed along. The music could have been better executed. The online show program promised 45 minutes' entertainment—actually it was more like 25 minutes. Not that I wanted 45 minutes of puppetry, but now I'm killing time at a Starbucks. You see my dilemma.
See it at the Fringe or back in CalArts's Valencia, California base if you love either the elements of stagecraft involved or the myth in question. Otherwise give it a miss.
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, Kill the Beast's debut 2013 Fringe production, was based on a short children's novel by Tom Baker (he of Doctor Who fame). You could pretty much see Baker's trademark terribly-mad grin superimposed over the whole thing—and that was no bad thing. Essentially, a talking toy pig encourages Robert Caligari, an already wretched little boy, to commit (or at least to do small things that enable) mass slaughter. Yes.
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs was superbly staged, in a way that makes it necessary to talk about worldbuilding. The set's limited, mostly black and white color palette and sharp angles, and the cast's dramatic black and white make-up and physical acting, combined to create a world that is like ours or that parodies ours, but which is distinctly other—a gritty, cruel, dreary potential site of the nastily fantastic. The production was a bit Roald Dahl and a bit Johnny the Homicidal Maniac in its styling and vibe—not so much so that anyone needs to send Jhonen Vasquez a check, but there was definitely a visual and comedic affinity there.
It was an incredibly funny production. Special mention in this regard goes to our repeated cuts back to the staid local news team, reporting on absolutely nothing at the beginning ("Seasons! They're on the way"), then responding to the slaughter, then getting caught up in it themselves.
One wonders how much they altered the children's novel. If the answer is "not a lot," this book is both excellent (in which case well done, Doctor) and hilariously unsuitable for "the delicately reared child." Romantic rats eat Our Anti-Hero alive at the end, and it is great.
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs has also played at Lane Theatre in Highgate, The Pleasance in Islington, and the Lowry Theatre in Manchester (its birthplace). The production is touring the UK again in October and November, making it a great Halloweeny entertainment choice.
The team's current Fringe offering, He Had Hairy Hands, begins in the 1950s, in the same visual world as The Boy Who Kicked Pigs. It then shifts to 1974, and a Scooby Doo palette of yellows, greens, and browns. It follows a young werewolf, more human monsters, and a disgraced supernatural-obsessed detective looking to earn back her place at the top. She's the most fun component of the generally enjoyable shebang.
Like The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, He Had Hairy Hands features interesting musical moments, comedy, and a cheerful, macabre atmosphere. The thwarted lesbian desires of two posh women, both named Trisha, delightfully bookend our time in Hemlock-Under-Lye. The ending is grim and unjust, but no less enjoyable for it. This is not, as Wilde puts it, a case in which "the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily."
The trigger warning debate that's been raging across the Internet hasn't really made inroads in the theater community as far as I’ve seen. A big part of me wants to argue that it shouldn't—that theater is not supposed to be safe (yet questions of privilege, degrees of safety, insert the whole aforementioned complex argument here). Yet it's worth considering the debate's place in theater in the case of something like this production, which opens with an illicit back-alley abortion. This isn't a serious treatment of the subject; it is just a joke. It didn't offend me, but then it's not my personal nightmare being exploited for the sake of the first five minutes' LOLs. Has the time come for some facility that enables attendees with triggers to check that a production's safe for them, or is this a drastic limitation of artistic freedoms and a strange intervention in the viewing experience?
Kill the Beast's work is marketed as grown-up theater, yet based on the subject matter and description, you might bring a quite young kid to either show and end up regretting it (or not—many a child has loved seeing people gored to death by rats before now). I say this as someone who accidentally sat her baby brother right next to the underage rape in Belt Up's The Boy James a couple years ago, because the same company's The Little Princess earlier that day had been fairly child-safe. Whoops.
In its themes and its aesthetics, He Had Hairy Hands is highly reminiscent of the company's last Fringe show. I don't really mind this? You can't ask a company to entirely reinvent the wheel every time, and what do people come for if not your signature thing? There's an awkward balance between "building a brand" and repeating yourself; playing it safe and playing to your strengths. And whether it’s albums or follow-up plays, the sophomore effort is fraught with well-known dangers. Kill the Beast is capable of doing riskier work in the future, but I'm happy with this very solid second Fringe effort.
Cirque Tsuki's Feast is an uneven show. It's one of three interconnected plays set within a fantastic circus. I love the idea of a play that can be enjoyed on its own or as part of the whole. It's a difficult task (Tony Kushner's monumental Angels in America only arguably manages it!), and Feast doesn’t quite close the deal.
In this play we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the marriage of the circus's proprietors with a party-cum-performance. The audience is invited in by a cast that coos about how long it's been. It's then shown around a semi-promenade built environment that does some nice things with limited space. The production makes a good start towards building an interactive experience. The way they use the audience starts shaky, and ends relatively strong—though if they'd picked a less GGG audience member/victim to play the Evil King than the one they ended up with in my performance, they might not have fared so well.
The couple, Madame Mist and the Great Zanagi, regale the audience with the tale of Scheherazade, with the help of a living doll, Tiffin. This inevitably spins off into embedded stories, many of which are themselves stories about telling stories. I'm not sure they were driving at any larger point about narrative, representation, or romance. I am hella easy for that stuff (see the exquisite Deadline, a radio play written for Big Finish by Rob Shearman, which does an excellent job discussing the material conditions of 60s television production, fandom, the cruelties of creative endeavor and of family life, etc.), so I am not difficult to appeal to on this score. Yet I don't feel I was asked to think further about these topics?
The interlinked stories did get confusing, and the doubling messy. It was thus difficult to bond with any of the shifting characters therein. I should point out that there's a really charming story-thread where cross-dressing and role-playing allow a couple to get to know and come to love one another. In general, though, if you're trying to juggle this many balls, you need to be crisp about your character changes, in total command of your layers. I was never really sure what was part of the stories and what was part of the frame narrative (and not in a productive-ambiguity way).
The external story wasn't terribly well explained. The frame narrative has two strong threads: Madam Mist's jealousy over what she perceives as Zanagi's growing fascination with Tiffin, and Madame Mist's death (it's not a spoiler guys, it's right there in the description). These don't have much to do with one another. To make these threads work, and work meaningfully, I think you'd need to establish some connection between them. Madame Mist is evidently jealous at the beginning of the storytelling, and at a big point of reveal and healing between husband and wife near the end, but Mist's jealousy doesn’t really have an arc per se. Other than what it said in the program, there was no real hint the death was nigh before it happened.
A review of the play's earlier Babel Studios incarnation suggested that the production owes a lot to Erin Morgenstern's novel The Night Circus (2011). The Night Circus came out around the same time as Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. Before that came The Illusionist (2006) and The Prestige (2006), which were in cinemas at the same time (and let's not forget Carnivàle). Before that, you have the influence of works like Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984). Circuses are everywhere in genre fiction, and though the ones in Feast and The Night Circus are both black and white, I'm hesitant to pin an old-timey circus aesthetic on any one source. Granted I've not read The Night Circus, so perhaps there's a more direct correlation I’m missing.
The role orientalism plays in the production also perhaps deserves a mention. Scheherazade and the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights have a long reception history in the West, but that doesn’t necessarily strip the source material of its context, or mean it isn't a little jarring when white people drape veils over themselves to perform Muslim femininity. I wouldn't say the production is racist, but I suspect it hasn't thought about its material via a lens that interrogates the exoticism that adheres to it. The fact that the rest of the cast reads as white, while the living doll is portrayed by an Asian actress, reminded me slightly of The Windup Girl (2009) and the critical reactions to that work, which some perceived as a critique that simultaneously enacted a glorification of the myth of the submissive Asian female.
This production wants to generate spectacle, and it needs to be slightly better at circus arts and production to pull off this foray into the territory of formalized clowning and the like. These elements were good but not great, or at least not great in this space. In some ways the production felt a bit young.
The actors were uniformly good, and the production was quite funny in places, but ultimately I decided not to take the time to see the rest of the trilogy, because time and funds are limited and I'd rather spend mine on other productions.
If you're a big fan of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, this production might really confuse you. To fit the typical Fringe time-slot, it cuts off after Act I without a lot of warning. Due to the musical's unique structure this does make sense as an ending, but the choice results in everyone being happy at the musical's conclusion rather than, oh I don't know, being abandoned, or committing infidelity and dying under the feet of a grieving giantess.
In this production (aka Act I), we follow an ensemble cast of fairy tale characters. At the core of this cast are a baker and his wife. They want to have a child, but can't conceive. A witch explains that she's cursed the baker’s family because of his father's actions. The witch wants to make a potion to restore her youth, and she offers to lift the curse if the baker and his wife can obtain the ingredients. In the course of the couple's quest, their plot becomes entangled with the stories of Rapunzel, Jack the Giant Killer, Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella.
The acting was engaging—the baker's wife did a good job with her rather complex, somewhat amoral character, Cinderella was warm and engaging, and the Narrator/Wolf and the gittish Princes were particularly fun.
This was a really competent secondary school production—amateur theatre as it should be. Everyone who needed to sing could sing, which is no mean thing given that this is Sondheim, an ambitious musical choice. As Forbidden Broadway's "Unworthy of Your Words" humorously points out, "What is that dotted note? (I have a ravaged throat) . . . I am unworthy of your words, Stephen darling, I cannot sing your minor thirds." Though to be fair this selection is somewhat gentle for Sondheim.
The musical itself does a few interesting things with the stories. The witch, simultaneously a crone and a beautiful woman, has a relationship with her captive, Rapunzel, that seems to shift between mother/child and something more potentially erotic. The tender song the witch sings to woo Rapunzel into staying leaves itself open to a variety of interpretations. I'd not thought to read the witch's jealousy over the prince stealing Rapunzel from her in that light before.
Into the Woods also makes an interesting use of the standard fairy tale and musical trope wherein characters have a moment of revelation, or their monumental tasks make them grow and change as people. In Act I, the baker's wife and Red Riding Hood both declare that they've really learned something, that they and their relationships will be stronger for these experiences. Act II undermines these claims, and with them some important components of the logic of musicals and fairy tales. Into the Woods asks whether extreme experiences are all that applicable to quotidian life, and what one truly learns in these moments of revelation and how useful that knowledge is. Within both frameworks, it questions the degree to which people can purposefully change, and the whole "eternal" crescendo of the fairy tale/the musical/Romance generally.
Everyone involved in the show I saw seemed invested in the success of the production. The team made thoughtful blocking and prop choices. Give me a solid am-dram or youth effort over sloppy, disaffected professional work any day. Don't be put off a Fringe show because it's not from a professional company—google a little, read some reviews, and you can generally sort the lemons from the gems.
What I did think, as we reviewed the plot summary on wiki after the show, was "this is bloody unfilmable." It feels like the sort of thing theater can do well, but which is difficult to pull off in the more Campbell-dominated narrative structures of blockbuster cinema: picaresque; unsatisfying; difficult to follow; a lot of characters, many of whom are difficult to like; reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, who is notoriously not a safe bet. Doubt begins to grow in my mind about the upcoming giant film adaptation project from Rob Marshall. Just because something is a successful, well-loved musical does not mean it doesn't smell like a box office bomb, or at least a hella bad idea. Our current industry conservatism lends itself to an adaptation fever that isn't actually more likely to produce a strong film than taking a chance on an original film script. People can too easily forget that the number one thing that makes a film saleable is: being a good film. Not ticking every demographic box, but simply working as a damn movie. And it's sad to see a good name brung low by a market-motivated attempt to make a perfectly nice apple into a more saleable orange.
[The second part of Erin's report from the 2014 Fringe can be found here.]
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.