Iraq themed plays attempt to move on

EDINBURGH — For the past couple of years, the drama program of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been dominated by the war in Iraq. This year, playwrights still found mileage in the subject, whether it was in the headline-grabbing tuner “Jihad: The Musical,” by Silk Circle Prods., or in “La Femme Est Morte,” a punchy reworking of the Phaedre story by Gotham’s Shalimar Prods.

But this year, a new theme emerged: that of reconciliation.

As well as venting their righteous political anger, writers were increasingly engaged in the question of what happens next. When the fighting stops, when the regime changes, when the memory of a painful history fades, is it possible to make amends and move on?

Drama is typically about conflict, but in 2007, the need for resolution seems of greater concern. That sometimes resulted in soft-centered plays that lacked dramatic bite but, if the Fringe can be relied upon as a barometer of the times, it suggests the world is tiring of confrontation and growing hungry for peace.

That was the message behind “Emergence-See,” by U.S. actor-playwright Daniel Beaty. In a sonorous multicharacter performance, he imagined a day in the life of Gotham after the mysterious appearance of a 400-year-old slave ship next to Liberty Island.

“We understand that this slave ship is not about guilt,” said one of his 40 black American characters. “It’s about healing.” It was a shame Beaty didn’t explore the image of the ship further (he was rather too keen on portraying the various performers at a poetry slam), but he had pertinent things to say about the necessity of recognizing the injustices of the past without being weighed down by them.

Nothing encapsulated that theme better than “Truth in Translation,” a rough-edged tuner about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that celebrated the power of forgiveness in the face of the horrors of apartheid. It was an uneven production propelled by the honest force of its message.

One day, the Middle East might also be ready to reconcile itself with the past and, in his comedy “Damascus,” Scottish playwright David Greig used the backdrop of a peaceful Syria to see what might happen when representatives of two ancient civilizations — West and East — try to engage each other as equals. Philip Howard’s production was one of the stronger offerings at the Traverse Theater, revealing the connections and contradictions of a multicultural world.

In Tim Crouch’s “England,” meanwhile, the actor-playwright imagined a meeting between a white English heart-transplant patient and the bereaved Asian wife of the organ donor, wondering whether the cultural divide can be bridged. Performed in front of the artworks in the Fruitmarket Gallery, it was a cool and insinuating production that asked awkward questions about cultural power, wealth and guilt.

Back at the Traverse, in the slow-paced “Game Theory,” Pamela Carter and Selma Dimitrijevic presented three scenes of conflict resolution, showing how painstaking the journey to compromise and agreement can be. The buildup was longwinded and needlessly elliptical, but their closing scene had tremendous power.

It’s interesting how frequently the theme of reconciliation cropped up, although, in a festival of more than 2,000 shows, it certainly was not the only thing on playwrights’ minds.

In fact, two of the most enjoyable and popular shows had virtually no intellectual content at all. “Fuerzabruta” was a disorientating bigtop spectacular taking place above the audience’s heads, while “Eurobeat” was a perfect pastiche of the Eurovision Song Contest, complete with a cell-phone vote for favorite song.

Jonathan Mills made a confident start as helmer of the Edinburgh Intl. Festival, programming several productions, such as Elizabeth LeCompte’s “La Didone” (Cavalli meets ’60s sci-fi), Barrie Kosky’s “Poppea” (Monteverdi meets Cole Porter) and Benjamin Bagby’s “Beowulf” (sung and spoken in Old English), that blurred the line between music and theater and did not, on the whole, upset too many purists.

Some purists, it should be said, yearned for more gravitas in “The Bacchae,” starring Alan Cumming, while others reveled in the cheeky theatricality of John Tiffany’s production for the National Theater of Scotland.

There was another unlikely pairing in the EIF dance program, in which Stephen Petronio set “Ride the Beast” to the music of Radiohead, a world premiere for Scottish Ballet. If, at times, his classical choreography was too graceful and flowing for the morose introspection of the music, the performance built into a series of complex patterns that matched the band’s diverse musical influences.

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