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Americans take Edinburgh spotlight

Package includes Wooster, Mabou Mines

EDINBURGH — A clutch of companies from the U.S. takes pride of place in the theater program of this summer’s Edinburgh Intl. Festival, running Aug. 10-Sept. 2.

Making his debut as helmer of the 60-year-old event, Australia-born Jonathan Mills has put together a package that includes the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, American Repertory Theater and solo performer Benjamin Bagby. Furthering the transatlantic connection is Scottish Gotham transplant Alan Cumming, who stars in David Greig’s new translation of Euripides’ “The Bacchae” for the National Theater of Scotland.

Other Stateside guests include the Trisha Brown Dance Company, early music vocalists Anonymous 4 and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The U.S. presence extends to a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ staging of “Impressing the Czar,” by Gotham choreographer William Forsythe.

Despite the number of American groups, Mills’ major inspiration comes not from the U.S. but from 17th century Mantua, Italy. He has used the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” as a jumping-off point for a number of strands in the program. The original Greek legend crops up in productions such as ART’s “Orpheus X,” while the innovative spirit of Monteverdi, a pioneer of narrative opera, finds echoes in “Candide,” the Wooster Group’s “La Didone” and Bagby’s “Beowulf.”

“The program has a degree of coherence, which I’m delighted with,” says Mills. “The core idea is one Monteverdi came up with. ‘L’Orfeo’ represents the first magnificent flowering of the idea of what opera could be: of many different art forms coming together in one larger art form. I didn’t want to do wall-to-wall Monteverdi, so I looked at how his legacy has influenced the work of other composers and how we can feel his heartbeat today.”

One of the most prominent examples of this “heartbeat” is “Poppea,” staged by controversial Australian helmer Barrie Kosky for the Vienna Schauspielhaus.

Although it’s based on the Monteverdi opera “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” the production is being included in the theater program because of the audacious leaps it makes from the original. Performed by seven actors, it takes inspiration from operetta, revue and burlesque, and features a dozen songs by Cole Porter.

“La Didone,” by the Wooster Group, takes similar liberties, this time mixing Francesco Cavelli’s opera of the same name with video imagery, electric guitar and the 1965 B-movie “Planet of the Vampires.” An excerpt will be shown as part of a benefit night on April 30 at downtown scenester hangout the Box in Gotham, after which the production premieres at Brussels’ Kaai Theater in May, before playing Rotterdam and Edinburgh.

Music also has a strong presence in “Mabou Mines DollHouse,” Lee Breuer’s striking version of the Ibsen play in which the male actors are less than five feet tall, while the women tower above them. The radical deconstruction won two Obie Awards in 2004, and Breuer has continued to work on it since.

The helmer is raising funds to shoot a film version in Glasgow, just before the Edinburgh run.

The biggest box office draw will be Cumming, returning to his native Scotland after a recent West End run in “Bent,” to star in “The Bacchae.” The helmer is John Tiffany, whose staging of Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch” was the hit of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and is expected to tour internationally in 2008. Two other recent Edinburgh fest discoveries, David Harrower’s “Blackbird” and Anthony Neilson’s “Realism,” open in New York this month.

Go to www.eif.co.uk for further details of the festival.

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