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A CurtainUp Feature
A Quick Report on the 2009 Ednburgh Fringe Festival

Editor's Note: As our New York critics geared up for this year's New York Fringe festival, our Boston based contributor, Larry Switzky took a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland to check out that annual event which runs August 7-30, at numerous venues throughout the city. Here's a brief report on what he saw. For more information see the official Fringe Web site,

If you've read about this year's Fringe elsewhere, you'll already know that the two recurring topics at Britain's largest annual theater festival are death and intimacy. Ophelia dies triumphantly in an enormous swimming pool; an elderly woman's husband dies even as a young woman's baby is born; a man slowly writes his way towards suicide. Likewise, an actor will wash your feet for half an hour and dare you to become friends; you can go on speed dates with an entire cavalcade of loonies; you can get blindfolded, spun around, and propelled through walls of smoke in a simulation of Kafka's nightmares. The weird truth on display again and again is that death calls out intimacy and often vice versa.

The linking of death and intimacy is easy compared to bridging the real division in Edinburgh — the gap between the comic Fringe and the somber Fringe. That's probably why David Grieg and Gordon McIntyre's musical trifle with an edge, Midsummer, has sold out its second straight year at the Traverse.

The comic Fringe is everywhere. It's noisy, crass, young, topical, Darwinian. You can't walk down High Street without garnering an armload of fliers for Shakespearean bingo, foul-mouthed puppets, or one of the half dozen zombie musicals staged by students who have only just completed their O-levels. The somber Fringe is in small venues, it's older, quiet, introspective, uninterested or unwilling to reveal itself. To marry the two Fringes would likely make a powerful— and lasting—work of art.

With the Fringe barely a week old, it's too early to make any definite judgments about what will survive this iteration. But it's a fair bet that the performers in the somber Fringe will quietly reappear at festivals throughout Europe and maybe even the United States. The coverage of The Scotsman and The Guardian, as well as the constant chatter on the ubiquitous iFringe application, will keep you up on the buzz with capsule reviews and gossip. Here are slightly longer reports of three shows to watch and to book early, all of which last the full length of the festival.

Certain Dark Things

What: You Need Me, directed by Emily Watson Howes
Where: Underbelly, Cowgate
When: 9:05pm, every night

Theater collective You Need Me pleased most critics last year with How It Ended, a short, striking piece of highly physical theater about five sisters living in Swansea at the end of World War II. This year, in one of the most charming venues in Edinburgh, they up the ante in every conceivable way, with a claustrophobic devised piece about forbidden love in Franco's Spain. A Mother (Miren Alcala) narrates the story of her enigmatic son Mikel's (Roger Ribo) turn to Basque revolutionary politics in Bilbao and a love affair with the revolutionary leader Inaki (Inigo Ortega Martinez}. Then, after a mostly unnecessary intermission, we're in Madrid twelve years later. Mikel has married the beautiful Julia (Kate Hewitt, who really is a mod-era knock-out) and is in denial about his political and sexual past after some gruesome interrogation by Franco's thugs in the intervening decade.

The story swerves between Lorca and Jacqueline Susann, with perhaps a few too many tortured homoerotic glances— love, even the repressed kind, can occasionally be fun. But that's not why you should see the play. You Need Me is a miracle of precise gestures and sculpted movements; every twitch or rotation of a prop communicates whole speeches. They're particularly good with garments: there are lovely scenes of gossip exchanged during the wash. And the sonic score is astounding, from original Basque melodies that accompany nearly every scene to ingenious environment effects. I thought it had started to rain again in permanently overcast Edinburgh until I realized that the company members were drumming their fingers behind the audience to simulate a downpour.

You Need Me is playing with fire, but it needs to play more. The fierceness of subtle exchanges in a company this well harmonized makes melodrama superfluous and even crude: the tension is already well established by a sudden pivot, downcast eyes, the fastening of a button. Forget the plot, savor the atmospherics, and watch You Need Me in action. When they find material worthy of their training, and I can imagine a catalog of glances as a sufficient worktable, this company will explode.

What: White Tea
Where: Assembly at George Street
Who: Tron Theatre and Fire Exit Limited
When: 2 and 5pm daily (except Tuesdays)

David Leddy is a rising star in the Scottish dramatic scene, though his anointment seems to have produced something of a backlash among established critics at the Fringe. But reviewer in-fighting is no reason to deny oneself the pleasure of Leddy's layered, delicate, verbally daring site-specific plays. In White Tea, Naomi Goldberger (Gabriel Quigley), a scholar of brain science and memory at the Sorbonne (until her funding is withdrawn) receives an unexpected visit from a shy Japanese woman, Tomoko (Alisa Anderson). Naomi's adoptive mother, a peace advocate and survivor of the atomic bomb, has suffered a stroke. Now, Naomi must make a pilgrimage to Japan to find out why her mother disappeared from her life five years ago, and why she was rarely there during her childhood.

Leddy's play unfolds deliberately, though never tediously, through confessions, confusions, delays, the antiphonal outpouring and withdrawal of emotions. The audience is piled into a small room coated with white gauze. It is made to put on kimonos and given cups of white tea— some in British teacups, some in a Japanese tea service. Leddy embraces the potential of cultural exchange without allowing it to become an exercise in self-congratulation. He establishes understated comparisons among British and Asian customs of greeting, friendship, and mourning simply through presentation and repetition. The tiny white box of a theater is a living multi-media landscape, bursting with strange and gorgeous images of tea gardens, Tokyo nightlife, and propaganda films.

Noami's gradual reconciliation with her past and with Tomoko is developed more succinctly through atmosphere rather than story. Leddy becomes most experimental, and most interesting, when he stimulates the senses that theater usually ignores. Given the coziness of the space, you are in constant contact with the actors' flesh: its presence, its smell, its warmth. Leddy develops the symbolic significance of the tea, as a sort of imperfect respite in a world of suffering, even as you are invited to taste it and touch it. The awakening to touch, taste, and smell as waypoints in memory is part of Naomi's story, but it's also part of the indelible experience of Leddy's superb invitation to sit, reflect, and sip.

What: Susurrus
Where: Royal Botanic Gardens
Who: Fire Exit Limited
When: every half hour from 10am to 5pm

If intimacy is one of the motifs of this year's Fringe, it doesn't get much more up close and personal than walking around Edinburgh's gorgeous Botanic Gardens while voices breathe stories in your ear. Susurrus, a promenade-style audio piece, is the second part of the Assembly's summer of Leddy. There are deliberate points of contact between White Tea and this guided tour. In fact, Susurrus—the word for the sound the wind makes as it brushes the trees—is all about making connections between disparate stories, experiences, and geographies.

With the help of an iPod and, if you need it, an umbrella, Leddy's characters relive a contemporary version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Robin (Paul Thomas Hickey), who was loved too much, and Helena (Wendy Seager), who was loved too little, try to piece together their lives after the death of a pedophilic father who nearly appeared in the premiere of Benjamin Britten's operatic version of Shakespeare's Dream. The Singer (Karen Ramsay) and the Researcher (Stewart Ennis), who are otherwise peripheral to the family drama, tell about the father's talent, beauty and loves, as well as the physiology of dead songbirds, respectively. It all falls into place during the hour and a half it takes to make a circuit of the gardens. The most extraordinary moments while wandering through Susurrus come from unexpected confluences, when the shape of a path suggests the winding narrative or a sparrow flies by during a lecture on sparrows. Leddy has constructed the tour to provoke these responses, but he has also made his play suggestive enough to allow for accidental conjunctions of artifice and nature. There's a surplus of this kind of generosity in both pieces, and the Assembly has been particularly generous in allowing patrons to witness, in two interlocking productions, the birth of a style.
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