The Scottish Playground

From Total Theater to 9-11 at the Edinburgh Festival

EDINBURGH—"A smorgasbord of tarts," shouts a breasty young woman in a fake fur and negligee. Standing beside her, a drag queen in fishnets hands out flyers to the show Lesbian Launderette, a self-declared "riotously funny Gay Shakespearian (sic) musical." Across the way, Scottish Girl Scouts convene to perform a quaint little ditty, while Polynesian dancers invoke the nature gods. Smack in the middle of the theatrical gridlock, an American juggler on a unicycle wins over the crowd with a few George W. Bush zingers.

Welcome to Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile, a granite and cobblestone street leading to a formidable medieval castle that plays backdrop to the world's largest celebration of the arts. The expensive-ticket International Festival, now in its 56th year, provides the centerpiece for a banquet of festivals, including the manifold Edinburgh Fringe, with its touted "20,000 individual performances." The even more star-studded book, film, and jazz festivals round out the bill. In short, a bona fide field day for the culturally promiscuous. Fortunately, Edinburgh in August means never having to remember the name of your last artistic fling.

Yet armed with a listings guide fatter than my Greenwich Village-Chelsea community directory, finding a truly memorable performance can still prove frustratingly elusive. Daunted by the profuse Fringe, I began my search for fresh drama with the more contained International Festival. Curiously, the most theatrically ambitious productions weren't on the theater bill. Peter Stein's magnificent five-and-a-half-hour staging of Wagner's Parsifal and the Italian choreographer Emio Greco's minimalist dance experiment, Conjunto de Nero, were on an aesthetic level beyond any of the theatrical offerings. Both works boldly interrogated the limits of performance—Parsifal with its snowballing mythological narrative careening toward a perilous sublime, and Conjunto with its shadowy quest to discover just how little music and light are required to set bodies in ecstatic motion.

Sad to say, but the International Festival went a long way toward validating the notion of theater as the most unreliable of the arts. Not that Stein's production of Parsifaldidn't brilliantly realize Wagner's dream of Total Theater, the perfectly integrated artwork that led to the construction of Bayreuth, his artistic Valhalla where design, acting, music, and poetry could synergistically entwine. Wagner may have been better sung before. (In fact, Bryn Terfel received glowing notices just before I arrived for a concert that included Wotan's farewell to Renée Fleming's Brünnhilde in a tidbit from Die Walküre.) But all the pieces of Stein's largely noninterventionist production—from conductor Claudio Abbado's commanding symphonic waterfall to set designer Gianni Dessi's ever-surprising color palette—helped to hypnotically conjure Wagner's crazy Christian fable, where humans heroically struggle in the face of their suffering to patch the breach between heaven and earth.

No such tragic depth emanated from Douglas Maxwell's Variety, which inertly dramatizes the decline of Scottish vaudeville by tracking the lives of a ragtag group of performers and the nervous wreck of a man whose job it is to convert the old variety hall into a talking pictures house. Unlike John Osborne's The Entertainer, which used the decline of the art form as a metaphor for larger sociopolitical change, Variety offers only a hodgepodge of hackneyed story lines. Though director Ben Harrison nicely exploited the old-style elegance of the King's Theatre, his Grid Iron company production couldn't compensate for his playwright's sappy vision. Nor did it entice me to stick around for the second act. (Edinburgh in August also means not having to return after intermission.)

Another International Festival offering, The Girl on the Sofa by Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, mounted at the Royal Lyceum, was definitely an improvement over Maxwell's pointless nostalgia, though here too the production surpassed the merits of what was being produced. Translated by emerging Scottish playwright David Harrower, the drama offers hallucinatory glimpses of a woman artist suffering from painter's block. Adrift in her relationship with her winsome lover and disappointed by her own paltry creative achieve-ments, she dwells on the childhood roots of her malaise—notably, an absent, seafaring father and a mother romantically involved with someone the young girl refers to as her "uncle." The early family drama reaches a crescendo with the absent father unexpectedly returning home to catch his wife in a carnal embrace. So much for groundbreaking dramatic vision, though the impressive formal fluidity made it hard to accept the banality of its perception. Suffice it to say that The Girl on the Sofa left me marveling at German director Thomas Ostermeier's kaleidoscopic mise-en-scène while hungering for something more revelatory than the usual neurosis-breeding dysfunction.

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Peter Stein's Parsifal: a perilous sublime
photo: Ruth Walz

Occasional snatches of visual élan were all that animated the Ro Theater's Macbeth at the Royal Lyceum, a dispiriting instance of auteur Shakespeare from the Netherlands that had me longing to head back to London to catch a second viewing of the Globe Theatre's Elizabethan-inspired production of Twelfth Night, featuring a deliriously uncampy Mark Rylance as Olivia. (Funny how Shakespeare played straight—even by a cast of men in drag—never fails to seem more contemporary than the most experimental treatments.) Granted there's something inherently strange about seeing the Scottish play in Scotland performed in Dutch. Yet nothing has become so commonplace as the reduction of Shakespeare into a series of strained images that neither deepen our understanding of his characters nor advance our interest in his plots. Director Alize Zandwijk, who derives endless aesthetic pleasure from stylized depictions of blood, clearly possesses a pungent scenic imagination. Her Macbeth, however, would have worked better as a succession of installations that a spectator could peruse—or skip—at will.

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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