The Scottish Playground

From Total Theater to 9-11 at the Edinburgh Festival

At this stage of my International Festival theatergoing, the lure of the Fringe proved overwhelming. I had already ducked into quite a number of late-morning and afternoon performances, standing in line with obsessive theater-goers who could make any critic feel laggard in his professional pursuits: a middle-aged woman straight out of a Barbara Pym novel retrieving a pad from her purse to share the complete inventory of what she's seen during her holiday. A gay, Oxford-educated mathematician eager to chart the highs and lows of his long theatrical weekend. Hungover types freshly arisen from their nightly beer binges and eager to resume the endless party.

Perhaps the biggest splash of the Fringe was the appearance of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in a sold out, three-day run of Anne Nelson's The Guys (Royal Lyceum). The play—which began at Tribeca's Flea Theater and continues to serve as a revolving door for Hollywood celebs—centers on a journalism professor volunteering to write eulogies for a fire captain who's lost half his men in the World Trade Center disaster. This was only one of several pieces relating to September 11, a subject that continues to foment heated, at times ugly, debate throughout the rest of the world. Walking past two young English blokes outside the Fringe press office on the morning when headlines carried news of the billion-dollar lawsuit initiated by the victims' families against Saudi Arabia, I couldn't help but cringe when one squawked to the other, "That's like suing McDonald's because you're fat." Such ideological venom came in a multitude of varieties, from Michael Billington's Guardian review of The Guys in which he faults the play for being "politically naïve" in its denial of "the long chain of cause and effect that led to the disaster," to praise for the 90-minute monologue Hyper-lynx that links suicide bombers with anti-globalization protesters.

The flip side of this tendentious editorializing is the sentimental cashing in that's clearly not just an American phenomenon. Requiem for Ground Zero (the Assembly Rooms), Steven Berkoff's solo elegy written (crazily enough) in iambic pentameter, tried to bring both sensitivity and toughness to its subject. Yet Berkoff's writing and acting were so laden with barnstorming grandiosity that it was hard not to feel like you'd been transported to an 18th-century performance by one of the hammier actor-managers. How much more affecting was the taxi driver who, upon hearing I was from New York, quietly inquired where I was on the morning of 9-11 and how the cleanup was progressing.

Unfashionable as it may be at the moment to be an American in Europe, our artists certainly held their own at the Fringe. Downtown doyen John Clancy, no longer running the New York International Fringe Festival, brought four shows to Edinburgh that turned into some of the toughest tickets in town. Presented at the Assembly Rooms, all of them nabbed awards, including C.J. Hopkins's Horse Country, which won the Best of the Scotsman Fringe Firsts, and Don Nigro's Cincinnati, which not only won a Fringe First but also honors for its star Nancy Walsh. Not a bad stash to carry through U.S. customs.

Oddly enough the highlight of the Fringe for me wasn't so much an individual show but a company. Pig Iron, a Philadelphia-based performance group, brought over Shut Eye, a dreamy movement-theater meditation on the blurry boundaries between nighttime and daytime, sleep and work. Conceived and directed in collaboration with Joseph Chaikin and staged at the Traverse Theatre, the piece bears his liberating influence, though it had trouble coming into satisfying dramatic focus. What was perfectly clear, however, was the prodigious talent and discipline of the ensemble, which tries to blend music, dance, and theater into a madcap Wagnerian whole. Stumbling upon Pig Iron was like finding a needle in the Fringe's frolicsome if mountainous haystack.

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