In a year in which many of the bigger names of the Edinburgh Intl. Festival Fringe — including Simon Callow, Julian Sands, Marc Almond and Art Malik — tackled serious subjects such as sexuality and immigration, the fest yielded a pair of award-winners, one from the U.S. and one from Berlin, that will have future life in Gotham.
Meanwhile, at the Edinburgh Intl. Festival, the annual event of which the Fringe began as the upstart offshoot, there was an unmistakable taste of the Far East, with a.d. Jonathan Mills basing his three-week event on the theme of Asian culture.
Standing out in the 2500-show Fringe, the Berlin-based company Circle of Eleven brought “Leo,” an ingenious piece of physical theater that turned gravity on its head thanks to the dexterity of performer Tobias Wegner and a simple camera trick that made the walls seem like the floor and vice versa. Show was a deserved winner of the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, and will play at Off Broadway’s Clurman Theater in January.
Traveling in the opposite direction, New York company the Team produced “Mission Drift,” an adventurous, intelligent and theatrically dynamic vision of capitalism and the American psyche. One of the most lauded shows at the Traverse Theater, it was the winner of the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Prize 2011, which will allow the company to present work in development at next year’s Edinburgh International Festival. “Drift” is on tap for a January run at Gotham’s PS 122.
Another world preem that caused a stir was “A Reply to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011” by the Belarus Free Theatre, now resident in the U.K. after its award-winning Stateside run earlier in the year. The new piece, both serious and playful, looked at how a repressive state generates a repressive attitude to sex, leading to intolerance of homosexuality and the sexual exploitation of women. The show was all the more powerful for being based on the real experience of the company, some of whom are unable to return to their homeland for fear of dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
This being the Fringe, there was no shortage of oddball hits such as “Allotment,” performed outdoors in a real community garden; “You Once Said Yes,” a one-on-one perf in which the spectator was passed from actor to actor through the streets; and “Alma Mater,” a 20-minute installation using an iPad.
The Asian-culture angle of the Edinburgh Intl. Festival, prompted in part by changing economic times that have redefined east-west relationships, was evident in the ambitious staging (by Stephen Earnhart, the former director of production for Miramax Films) of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” adapted from the novel by Haruki Murakami and performed in English and Japanese, as well as in Tim Supple’s six-hour pan-Arabian “One Thousand and One Nights.” Latter show found the focus that was said to have been missing at its preem in Toronto in June, producing a seductive storytelling marathon.
Mills also programmed three offerings that reframed Shakespeare in a setting unfamiliar to western auds. From Korea, the Mokwha Repertory Company staged “The Tempest” in a form that drew as deeply on Korean folklore as it did on the original play. From Taiwan, the Contemporary Legend Theater provided a vehicle for actor/helmer Wu Hsing-Kuo to act out key characters from “King Lear” using techniques from Peking opera. And from China, the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe presented a colorful reworking of “Hamlet” in the form of “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan.”
None of these productions gave fresh insight into Shakespeare, although they did reinforce the Bard’s position as a storyteller whose appeal spans continents and centuries. Instead, what they provided was a fascinating sampler of unfamiliar performance traditions. In the role of Zi Dan/Hamlet, actor Fu Xiru held his leg high in the air with acrobatic poise. As Lear, Wu Hsing-Kuo focused on the tiniest eye movement and the most precise of gestures. Like the actors in “The Tempest,” they faced directly out to the aud and frequently broke into song. These were spectacular and musical shows that made theatergoers think twice about the performance traditions so familiar to western audiences.