None of my other theater festival travels have ever compared to Edinburgh in August. By scale alone EdFringe dwarfs most other events. But even more than size, the fact that you could see children’s theater, performance, comedy, and circus all under the same festival umbrella speaks to its unusual nature. The January festivals in New York (Under the Radar, COIL, American Realness, Prototype, Special Effects, Exponential) may each have their unique style and spirit, but overall if you call that work “experimental” that’s usually a fair descriptor.
With the breadth of shows in the Edinburgh festivals, it can be easy to get lost. Certainly well-established American comedians have been performing at the festival for years and grow their audiences at the Fringe but on the theater side it tends to be a more modest showing of a handful of artists, many of which are totally unknown to UK or international audiences. Some come from the scrappy, DIY fringe circuit in America, some are Off-Broadway stalwarts, and some defy these categorizations entirely.
So lest you think Americans stay home every August, I wanted to recommend some American shows to keep an eye out for at the Edinburgh Fringe, Forest Fringe, and International Festival this year.
Ada/Ava (EF): Chicago-based Manual Cinema will make their debut at Fringe with an unusual, wordless shadow puppet show that is as much a deconstruction of such shows as it is one. Manipulating over 300 shadow puppets and large acetate transparencies on visible overhead projectors used in congruence with actors wearing paper masks and a live musical ensemble, the overall effect of Ada/Ava is something akin to a live animated film. You can see the puppeteers and artists at work and yet are also drawn into their imagined world. Add in quadrophonic surround sound and a cinematic score (by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman) that director Drew Dir says “evokes David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock and can be played live using only a few instruments (cello, guitar, Rhodes piano, vocals).” Telling the story of septuagenarian twins, one living in grief over the loss of the other, Dir wanted to explore the idea after “observing my grandfather grieve for his late wife,” he explains. “I was really struck by how you can create these routines and patterns for fifty years around another person, and when that person is gone, the greatest disruption often occurs in the little day-to-day rituals. A lot of the rest of the plot is inspired by Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury, but the emotional core of the piece comes from my grandfather.”
Anything That Gives Off Light (EIF): Brooklyn-based troupe The TEAM returns with a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland at the International Festival. TEAM director Rachel Chavkin leads the charge with this tale of an American woman and a Scottish man and their journey through the Highlands where the past and the present become blurred. Using folk music from America and Scotland, this sounds like a dreamy cross-cultural exploration from an American company that has found much success in the UK.
Celebration, Florida (FF): Greg Wohead’s work probes the idea of surrogacy, re-creation, and nostalgia for a place that never existed. Celebration, Florida is a planned community, created by the Walt Disney Co. in 1994 to be the perfect idyll of 1950’s Americana—all reproduction and reimagining. The show Celebration, as Wohead explains is “an extremely personal piece that I made in response to a certain period of time when I was away from people and places I loved.” Wohead was interested in how we create “stand-ins for people we might deeply miss and how we might then form relationships and attachments with the stand-ins.” To that point, Wohead won’t appear in this show but the performers will be stand-ins for him. The performers will not have any preparation for the show and will be provided words and guidance through pre-recorded audio in headphones. Celebration combines themes in Wohead’s other work from the headphones used in The Ted Bundy Project to reenactment in Comeback Special. Wohead suggests that even if the ideas sound heavy “the energy of using unrehearsed performers makes it a lot of fun.”
Chris Gethard: Career Suicide (EF): Stand-up comedian and storyteller Chris Gethard is well-known in the New York comedy scene (his interview about failure and defining your own artistic path is one of my favorites). He’s a skillful improv comic, the host of a television variety show of his own wackadoo formula, and is making in-roads in film, as the co-star of the improv based movie Don’t Think Twice by comedian-storyteller Mike Birbiglia. But he’s making his debut appearance at EdFringe with Career Suicide. It is a serio-comic story of his own suicide attempt and struggles with depression. Rather than avoid some of the most difficult episodes in his life, Gethard digs deep into them and comes up with a tale that will have you laughing and crying in equal measure. As serious as the subject matter may be, he finds blissful moments of comedic release in places you did not think it was possible to laugh. He’s a charming storyteller and makes an excellent case for talking openly about mental illness.
Christeene: Trigger (EF): My favorite drag performer is back in Edinburgh and I could not be more excited. Discovering the work of Paul Soileau’s alter-ego Christeene at EdFringe in 2014, I became an acolyte. Paul has the unique ability to use gender, performance, and wild abandon as a release and an embrace. Although those may seem like contradictory concepts, his performative freedom becomes something all of us can connect with. Some may come for the shock value, but underneath the filth and spurts of fluid exists an open heart and an invitation to be yourself. I have no idea what Trigger is about but I plan to be there early and often.
Ghost Quartet (EF): I enjoyed composer-lyricist Dave Malloy’s atmospheric chamber musical when it had a successful extended run in New York. Now he has joined forces with Paines Plough to bring a shorter version of it to their Roundabout outpost at Summerhall. The foursome of musicians and vocalists will tell tall tales and ghost stories. Though it does not follow a linear narrative, there is a spiritual connection to the collection of songs with overlapping themes and an overall sense of the mysterious. Malloy (who makes his Broadway debut later this year with his show Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 starring Josh Groban) previously brought Beowulf—A Thousand Years of Baggage to Edinburgh in 2011. Malloy says he is “excited to return and take in the community of revelry again, with a show that feels like it was custom made for the haunted and whisky-soaked streets of Edinburgh. And at an amazing in-the-round venue that feels like it was custom made for our show.”
The Glass Menagerie (EIF): After a run on Broadway in 2013-2014, director John Tiffany brings this Tennessee Williams classic to the EIF with Cherry Jones again playing Amanda Wingfield. Having found it a bit cool on Broadway, I was planning to skip this production (our Exeunt reviewer loved it mind you). But the new American cast members for the Scottish run changed my mind completely because they are too good to miss. Michael Esper and Seth Numrich will play Tom Wingfield and the Gentleman Caller, respectively. Esper moves between plays and musicals with ease. He recently played the devilish Valentine in the Ivo van Hove/Enda Walsh/David Bowie collaboration Lazarus and will reprise that role in the West End. Numrich left a stunning impression as the vulnerable-brute boxer in Golden Boy on Broadway but has more recently done stage work in London (and we’d like him to come back to NYC).
Private Manning Goes to Washington (EF): New York site-specific artists The Representatives (playwright Stan Richardson and actor Matt Steiner) engage in what they call “radical intimacy” theater. Usually their shows are staged in places like apartments, churches, hair salons and other alternative venues to an invitation-only audience. But they are bringing a new show to a proper theater in their debut at EdFringe and everyone is welcome. They often create work within a short time of staging it to keep the ideas current and focused in reaction to the changing the world. They wrestle with complex political and socially conscious concepts. In this two-hander, they invent a secret meeting between President Obama and Pvt. Chelsea Manning, the transgender US soldier imprisoned for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks. Richardson is interested in the radical acts of whistleblowers and hackers. “Exposing injustice takes a kind of selflessness that is easily seen as psychological instability,” says Richardson. For Manning, he queries, “if we believe in the vaguely noble values and greater goals of the United States—to bring democracy and peace to the rest of the world—we should see her bold and clumsy act as heroic.” Though he notes “the play does not argue that she was entirely in the right. But we do wonder about the severity of her punishment, given her intentions.”