Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Favorite Shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

EdFringe 2015 is now in the books.  Overall, Wendi and I feel we did a good job of choosing the 70 shows we saw. (That's not to say there weren't shows that made me painfully aware how long an hour can be if you aren't willing to walk out of a small performance space.) The question, of course, is how to keep track of our reactions to that many performances.  Luckily, Wendi and I have a sharply honed five star rating system, with five stars given to shows that are well-written, well-acted, creative, and among the best we've ever seen.  No show received the coveted five star rating from either of us this year, but we still saw a lot of great theater.  Here are my top five shows:

Tim Grayburn

Fake It 'Til You Make It by Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn.  This show about clinical depression in men packed an emotion wallop.  Kimmings and Grayburn are a real-life couple who are expecting their first child.  Several years into their relationship, Kimmings discovered that Grayburn was on medication for clinical depression.  Grayburn hadn't shared this crucial fact with her because he feared it would made him seem less of a man.  The couple struggled with the issue, weaning Tim off his medication, living together through a break-down, and coming to terms with what it means to their relationship.  A performance artist, Kimmings' reaction was to make a show about the issue, and she persuaded Grayburn to quit his job as a media exec and go on the road with her.  His conditions:  He wouldn't look "you lot" (meaning the audience) in the eye; he wanted to play the guitar in the show; and he had to look like a real man. Throughout the show, which was alternately poignant and funny, Tim wore hats and miscellany on his head to maintain his emotional distance. When he finally revealed himself fully to the audience, I could feel how much it took for him to do so.  At this point in the show, the couple described the symptoms of depression.  Tim commented that he thought they could just list the symptoms but that Bryony insisted they make it a dance.  (Her look to the audience said "Duh" loud and clear.) The couple's ability to not only cope with Tim's depression but to joke about their different approaches to life left no doubt in my mind about the strength of their partnership.  When they built a house onstage to the tune of The Carpenters' "Close to You," I totally lost it.  The show was brave and personal and creative and touched an emotional chord.  And I loved the fact that the couple stand outside the theater to greet audience members as they are leaving, many of whom share their own stories with the pair.  To watch a clip from the show, click here.  My score:  4.5; Wendi's score: 2.5

Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis from "Lungs"
Lungs by Duncan Macmillan (Paines Plough Theatre).  Last year's Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan was one of my EdFringe favorites.  We passed on Lungs, though, because the description didn't appeal to me.  ("In a time of overpopulation, erratic weather and political unrest, what exactly are the right reasons [to have a child].")  I was envisioning a rant about the environment and other socially conscious factors against having a family. The show was back this year after winning lots of awards, so we decided to check it out.  It was fabulous. Macmillan has a remarkable ability to address serious issues with a good amount of humor.  And while the play does touch on the environment, etc., it delves into plenty of relationship issues as well.  When you add two superb actors -- Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis -- the result was a memorable production.  My score:  4.5; Wendi's score:  2.5.

Molly Vevers from "Ross & Rachel"
Ross & Rachel by James Fritz.  Fans of the TV show "Friends" might have wondered what happened to Ross and Rachel once the series ended.  I can say with assurance that this one woman play is not where the writers would have gone with the story line.  While Ross and Rachel have ended up together, it is definitely not happy-ever-after.  Rachel chafes at losing her identity and Ross' characterization of her as belonging to him.  When he develops brain cancer, she's secretly relieved that she will soon have the opportunity to be on her own without the messiness of a divorce.  Then Ross proposes a joint suicide pact.  They'll sit in a tub and cut their wrists and leave the world together.  This show was one hundred percent drama and incredibly intense.  It left me breathless in the way the best theater does.  Actress Molly Vevers deservedly won several awards for her performance.  As a side note, Wendi never watched Friends, so had no idea about the back story!  My score:  4; Wendi's score:  3.5.  

Cast members from "Sunset Five"
Sunset Five by DugOut Theatre.  This devised theater work was one of the most all-around enjoyable of this year's Festival.  (The term "devised" theater refers to a work developed collaboratively, often by the actors.)  When we entered the theater, five actors were sitting behind mikes.  One actor was wearing athletic clothes with shorty shorts and alternately playing the flute and the fiddle; another was dressed in cowboy attire and strumming a guitar. What was going on?  A pub that ran weekly quiz games was about to go under because the owner couldn't pay the mortgage (held by the disreputable owner of the local casino).  The owner and her quiz team banded together--each using his or her special skills--to rob the casino.  (The guy in the athletic clothes was particularly hilarious as he worked to make his abilities to do gymnastics and roll up into a ball relevant to the endeavor.)  If this description sounds silly, it was, but in the best possible way.  We laughed and cheered for the home town team to prevail over corporate greed.   Serious fun.  My score:  4; Wendi's score: 4.

Nicola Daley and Ramesh Meyyappan in "Butterfly"
Butterfly by Ramesh Meyyappan.  This wordless show was one of the most moving of this year's Fringe.  A kite maker becomes involved with a lepidopterist (a scientist who studies butterflies).  Her former beau snaps and rapes her;. she has a child.  (The child is depicted by puppets, which I loved; Wendi found them disturbing.) The show explored feelings of love, loss and hope in a lyrical way, with beautiful accompanying music.  I was fascinated to learn that the playwright--who was also one of the actors--is deaf.  Knowing this made the performers' physical conveyance of their emotions even more impactful.  To watch a clip from this show, click here.  My score: 4; Wendi's score: 2.5.

EdFringe is the theatrical equivalent of a smorgasbord and more than a little addictive. And crazy as it might sound, now that I've caught up on my sleep, I'm thinking about next year...

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Documentary Works at Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Victoria Melody's Hair Peace

Victoria Melody in Hair Peace
Performers of all sorts come to EdFringe to tell their stories. According to her website, Victoria Melody "makes one-woman theatrical shows, performance interventions and films about British pastimes, passions and tribes."  Her latest show is Hair Peace, a surprisingly fascinating look at the multinational business of selling hair. 

The idea for the project came when Melody entered a beauty pageant in hopes of becoming Mrs. U.K. A hairdresser suggested she fluff up her look by wearing hair extensions. "Gross" was more or less Melody's response.  "It's just like wearing someone else's knickers that have been washed," the hairdresser retorted. To Melody, it seemed more like wearing someone else's fingernails, but she had her eye on the prize and did what she needed to do. Melody took the title of Mrs. Brighton, but her dreams of going all the way did not come true.  The results of her experience became the subject of her show Major Tom and then led her to investigate the genesis of the hair in the extensions she wore. 

Having watched CSI, Melody's first stop was a lab to have a DNA analysis of the hair conducted.  The scientist couldn't help her identify the individuals whose hair the extensions contained, but he was able to tell her that some of the hair was Indian and some was Russian.  (This meant that the extension was not "remy" or from only one person.) Armed with this information, Melody headed off to India.

At the Hindu temple of Tirumala Venkatswara, more than 12,000 pilgrims have their hair shaved each day as an offering to the gods.  The practice is representative of shedding your ego. Many pilgrims, most of whom are women, travel for days on foot in order to make this offering.  Melody shared a video in which she talked with a woman who had made the pilgrimage to Tirumala.  She stood in line for three days before being seated in one of the 650 barbers' chairs.  The audience watched a variety of emotions--shock, gratitude, elation--flow over her face as she went from having a full head of beautiful hair to the head of a monk. 

Indian hair is desirable for use in hair extensions because of its width and because it typically has not been processed (hence the reference to "virgin" hair). The temple makes millions of dollars each year from the sale of tonsured hair. For an interesting article about this practice--and what happens to the hair--click here.  

A hair factory in India
While in India, Melody interviewed Benjamin Cherian, a Harvard graduate and President of Raj Hair International. Her interview included a visit to a hair processing factory. The interview left me with no doubt that hair exportation is a big business.  Writer Scott Carney, author of "The Red Market," estimates the global market for human hair at $900 million annually, about 40% of which comes from hair extensions.  (Click here for an NPR interview with Carney, whose book covers the sale of body parts and blood as well as hair.) 

Melody's journey continued on to Russia, referred to as the "Rolls Royce of hair extensions."  (A bit surprisingly, a quick google search yielded no articles on the use of Russian hair in extensions.  I did, however, find lots of websites for ordering wigs and extensions made of Russian hair.  I wasn't tempted.)  Melody showed a video of a woman negotiating the sale of her dead mother's hair, which seemed more than a little bit creepy to me.  The practice is apparently fairly common. 

At the end of the day, Melody was not able to find out whose hair she wore on her head, but she had learned a lot about the hair business.  And so had I.   

Monday, August 24, 2015

Documentary Works at Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Mark Thomas' Trespass

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival offers something for everyone:  theater, comedy, music, circus, cabaret, spoken word and pretty much anything else you can think of. There are established performers and newcomers hoping to make their mark.  Mark Thomas and Victoria Melody are two actors on this spectrum who shared their stories in an engaging way.

Mark Thomas (credit to Idil Sukan)
Mark Thomas is an award-winning stand-up activist (who knew that was a category of performer?) whose 2014 show Cuckooed was both engrossing and entertaining.  And so Thomas' show this year -- Trespass: A Work in Progress -- was one of our "must sees."

The show apparently picks up where Thomas' 100 Acts of Minor Dissent left off.  Over the course of an hour, Thomas regaled us with the ways in which he and his fellow troublemakers engaged in small acts of civil disobedience. Case in point: Thomas marched in front of the Houses of Parliament imagining the end of the British monarchy (which, unbelievably, is a crime punishable by life imprisonment under the Treason Felony Act 1848).

Rendering of new U.S. Embassy
Thomas also organized picketers to protest in front of the new U.S. Embassy being built in London. The new construction includes a moat of sorts that will make doorstep protests impossible, so Thomas staged an anticipatory protest. Participants were invited to create placards they thought would be applicable in the future. "Stop the War!" seemed a natural. I wish I could remember some of the others, which were much more unexpected and clever. 

"No loitering" signs on a public sidewalk outside of a gated community also sparked his ire.  Thomas' response was quite obvious:  to host weekly tea parties for passersby, complete with homemade cake.  While some of the residents weren't so keen on this, local walkers, joggers and cyclists enjoyed the gatherings quite a bit.  A peek at Thomas' website revealed that his "no loitering" gatherings are still going in full force.   

I will admit that during the course of the show, I found myself thinking what a nuisance Thomas is.  A funny nuisance, but a troublemaker nonetheless.  Sadly, I don't seem to have the soul of a social activist. But the more I consider Trespass' message, the more I appreciate it. And Thomas himself is both clever and a consummate performer, and I'd make a beeline to his next show.

To read a description by Thomas about some of his prior protests, click here.

Next up:  Victoria Melody's Hair Peace.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Getting Physical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I am in withdrawal.  It's been five days since I've seen a theater performance. While that might not sound like a lot, when you've gotten accustomed to taking in six performances a day, it feels like I've gone cold turkey.  Over the 11 days Wendi and I were at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we went to 70 performances. The amazing thing is that we barely scratched the surface of the more than 3,000 shows at this year's Festival.

Scene from BLAM!
 In thinking back over the shows we saw, one of the many things I'm struck by is the breadth of movement-focused performances. After traveling overnight and checking into our hotel, Wendi and I headed straight out to catch a performance of BLAM!  Described as "Die Hard" meets "The Office," this show sounded like something that would keep our sleep-deprived attention. It did. The show featured four office workers who brought to mind the phrase "boys and their toys."  In this case, though, the toys were cleverly made from easily available office supplies.  Who would have thought a coat rack could double as a machine gun?  Or that the quintessential office water cooler and some parts from a desk lamp could be turned into a puppet of sorts?  BLAM! was high energy and incredibly creative and a great way to kick start our Festival experience. Click here to watch a trailer of the show (which doesn't do it justice). 

4x4: Ephemeral Architectures

While EdFringe has always included circus-style shows, this is its first year with a dedicated Circus Hub venue. Although only one ring, the location offers a more traditional space for gymnasts and other acts to show off their skills. The circus-style show I enjoyed most was performed on a proscenium stage, though, rather than at the Circus Hub: the beautiful 4x4: Ephemeral Architectures by Gandini Juggling. The production showcased four jugglers and four ballet dancers who cleverly wove together a performance unlike anything I'd ever seen.  I loved everything about it: the juggling, the dancing (particularly the strength of the male dancers) and the music. Click here to see a video with highlights from the show (which makes me wish I could see the show again!)  As a bit of a bonus, I learned after the show that Wendi knows how to juggle, a talent she displayed in our hotel room using a hairbrush, an apple and a bottle of shampoo. The things you find out about people when you travel together!

Then there was Nautilus, a show by Gaulier-trained clown/mime Trygve Wakenshaw. For those of you who hear the word "mime" and think of a creepy guy in white-face trying to get himself out of an imaginary box, rest assured that Wakenshaw's shows are a distant relative to this type of work.  Nautilus was performed in one of the larger spaces at the Fringe--a real theater seating perhaps 300 people--and I ended up in the very back row. Despite the distance to the stage, I had no difficulty appreciating Wakenshaw's expressiveness and humor as he acted out scenes as simple as the chicken crossing the road to the more complicated story of Rapunzel (which doesn't end well -- just think about what happened when the prince yanked repeatedly on her tresses). Wakenshaw had the audience in the palm of his hand for the entire 90 minutes of the show, and I would go back and see him in a heart beat. In fact, this was the second time I've seen him -- his Kraken last year was an unexpected pleasure (and not only because I got a kiss out of the performance!)

Enjoying performances like these kept Wendi and me going throughout EdFringe. Despite the number of shows we saw, I never lost that feeling of hope and anticipation when the lights went down.  And as to my withdrawal, I'll be taking the edge off tomorrow when I head to Sarasota to see Urbanite Theatre's production of Isaac's Eye by Lucas Hnath. Having seen Hnath's The Christians at EdFringe, I am particularly looking forward to it. The Christians was well-written and received great reviews, but was not one of my favorites.  I'm curious about my reaction when Hnath takes on a different topic.  

Next up:  Documentary-style work at EdFringe. 


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Museum Hopping in New York, Part 2

Arthur Dove's "Ferry Boat Wreck" (1931) 

"America is Hard to See" at the Whitney Museum of American Art is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.  The Whitney has taken the opportunity of opening its new (and quite beautiful) venue to scrutinize its collection of 22,000+ objects and to create a show that spans American art from 1910-present.  The 23 "chapters" of the show sprawl over four floors, with each inspired by a work of art that evokes the section's "animating impulse."

The museum offers free guided tours with admission, and I took in two during my visit.  The docents were knowledgeable and approachable, and I found myself desperately wishing that I could be the one guiding visitors through the show. (Perhaps in another lifetime....)  For now, I'll share some of the highlights from the Seventh Floor, which covers the period 1925-1960.

From "Cirque Calder" (1926-1930)
In the late 1920s, New York was the home of mass entertainment, a place to see and be seen.  No work typifies this energy more than Alexander Calder's "The Circus."  In 1925, Calder spent two weeks sketching acts for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The circus caught his imagination, and he spent the next five years creating 20 miniature circus acts from wire, wood and other materials.  He took his show on the road to avant-garde Paris and other locales around the world. Calder would entertain his audience by serving as ringmaster.  (Click here to see a video of Cirque Calder.)  The work itself is displayed in a glass case, with visitors becoming part of the spectacle as they peer through the glass at both the art and each other.

Bellows' "Dempsey and Firpo" (1923)

George Bellows' "Dempsey and Firpo" was also found in "The Circus" chapter.  Boxing had only recently been legalized when Bellows captured this image from the four minute fight.  Although Luis Angel Firpo has the clear advantage in this moment, Jack Dempsey prevailed.  The expression "the long count" came from this fight because the referee's extended recitation of one to ten gave Dempsey time to get back up and into the ring.  (Sports fans might be interested in perusing this article from The Atlantic which declares the painting the greatest American sports painting and includes video of the bout.)

Obata's "Mono Crater" (1930)
Our guide encouraged us to think about the sounds of the city as we looked at these works and others featuring dance halls and jazz musicians and poker games.  The mood was quite different in the next room, which was inspired by Grant Wood's "Breaking the Prairie."   A sense of quietude filled the space, even in works like Woods' in which people were tilling the fields.  Perhaps my favorite story relates to the woodblock prints by Chiuro Obata, each of which was made using between 120-205 woodblocks.

Obata was a Japanese-America artist who emigrated to the United States as a teenager.  Despite being firmly entrenched in American life--he was a professor of art at UC-Berkley--Obata and his family were interned during WWII.  He returned to his position at Berkley upon their release.  When the Whitney purchased one print from Obata's Yosemite series, his heirs were so honored by his recognition as an American artist that they donated another 17 works to the Museum.

Lawrence's "Victory" (1947)
I missed the work that provided the name for the "Fighting with All our Might" room, perhaps because I was so taken by the art.  This space deals with the political--from labor unrest to lynchings to bread lines to war.

Having recently experienced Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration series at MOMA, I was thrilled to see ten works from his War Series.  During WWII, Lawrence was an artist in residence with the U.S. Coast Guard.  Unfortunately, the works he created during that time were lost.  In 1946, he received a Guggeheim Fellowship to paint a series based on his memories of his experiences.  He created the paintings in an unusual manner by lying the 14 canvases on the floor and applying a particular color of paint to each in turn.  You can see that, to Lawrence, the United States' victory in the war was not a cause for celebration.

This post barely scratches the surface of the more than 600 works included in "America is Hard to See."  I have one day in New York when we return to Scotland, and a return visit to the Whitney might be in order.  The exhibit runs through September 27.  If you're an art fan and are in the area, run--don't walk--to this show.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Museum Hopping in New York, Part 1

Since my flight to Scotland leaves from New York, it made sense to get my vacation started with some time in the City visiting friends and taking in some museums. It's been a wonderful few days.

My first stop was the New York Botanical Gardens to see "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life." Neither Andrea nor I had ever been to the Botanical Gardens before (shame on us), so we started our visit with the tram ride around the 250 acres of gardens. It was slightly painful to hear the canned talk iterate over and over how the gardens are ablaze with color in the spring. We still saw plenty of flora, however, especially in the Haupt Conservatory. The Conservatory features 11 different environments, from tropical rain forest to desert. My favorite discovery was the floss silktree, which distinctly reminded me of an instrument of torture.

The Frida Kahlo exhibit itself was slightly disappointing, as it featured only 14 works. Other than her "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird," which serves as the banner for the show, most of the work was botanical in nature. (Shocking, I know, for an exhibit at the Botanical Gardens.) I will say, though, that the NYBT knows how to work a theme. One area in the Conservatory had been converted into Casa de Azul, the blue-walled home Kahlo shared with muralist Diego Rivera. The home's garden had been faithfully recreated, and it was easy to see why Kahlo would be inspired to paint there. Other related activities included a mariachi performance and a Mexican cooking demonstration and a taco truck. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable outing.

Next up was The Jewish Museum's "Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television." How could I resist a show featuring two of my favorite things?

Still from Duchamp's film "Anemic Cinema"
This show was also small, but there were some great take-aways. As I entered the exhibit, the intro to Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" was running on a large screen. "There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man...This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call the Twilight Zone." The relationship between surrealism and both the themes and visuals of "The Twilight Zone" was obvious once I saw the reference. (In this video of the opening montage, the connection practically hits you over the head.) I was interested to learn that Serling had mistakenly expected that social commentary hidden in a sci-fi show would slip by TV execs and sponsors. His perspectives about issues like race relations and gender roles apparently caused a fair bit of conflict.

Filmore East Hendrix poster
"Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" is an example of the equally obvious link between modern art--pop, op and psychedelic--and television. One look at this "Flashback Friday" video of Laugh-In clips shows the strong influence of these art styles on the show, from set design to wardrobe.  Even NBC's logo at the beginning is strikingly vibrant and a bit psychedelic.  Another classic example is the TV show "Batman," which took a page from Roy Lichtenstein and comic book art.

My week-end excursions primed me for the main event --  "America is Hard to See" at the Whitney Museum.  It's an amazing show in the Museum's terrific new venue.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post to get a peek into the exhibit. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

EdFringe, Here We Come!

With 52 shows booked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (and a few slots left to fill), there's a lot of theater in my future. Without doubt, there will be some losers. (The good news is that most shows are 60-75 minutes, so the pain of a bad show doesn't last for long.) There will be some winners as well, though, and a couple of shows that make a real impact are worth sitting through a lot of so-so theater.  Here are the descriptions of some of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing .
"Hair Peace"
Hair Peace - When Victoria competed in beauty pageants for a previous show a hairdresser advised she wear hair extensions. Freaked out by wearing a piece of somebody else's body she embarked on an extraordinary adventure to find whose hair this was. Victoria's boundless curiosity takes an audience on a serendipitous journey around a world in miniature. There's a baddie, a Russian fortune teller, an unbelievably expensive wedding, a Celebrity Big Brother contestant, forensic crime scene investigations and hair, lots of hair. The outcome is a true story about the search for three strangers from distant lands connected by DNA. How could Wendi and I resist? 

"Where Do Little Birds Go?"
Where Do Little Birds Go -  This one-woman play tells the story of Lucy Fuller, an 18-year-old girl abducted by the Kray twins in 1960s London. Based on a true story, we follow Lucy's journey from small-town teenager to London sex worker.   I know it's a bit dark, but the show won the People's Choice award at a curated theater festival in London earlier this year.  Plus--true confession time--while my tastes these days tend more towards literary fiction, I've read more than my share of serial killer books.

Butterfly - A striking adaptation of Madame Butterfly, exploring themes of love, loss and hope. Told without words, this haunting piece uses visually poetic narrative, handcrafted puppets and a beautiful score to tell the tale of Butterfly, a kitemaker.  While the idea of theater without words might sound a bit strange, I saw a wordless show at an international community theater festival at Venice Theatre last year that was mesmerizing.  If this is half as compelling, it will be a treat. 

"Little Thing, Big Thing"
Little Thing, Big Thing - An ex-con and nun are chased across Ireland for a roll of film... why the bleedin' fuss? Martha and Larry take a high octane jump into the world of international energy skullduggery, awakening passions they thought were dead.  This show caught our eye in part because one of the actors and the theater company have been the previous recipients of Fringe First awards from the Scotsman newspaper. 

The Sunset Five - Faced with losing their beloved watering hole, a pub quiz team stage a casino heist. Hailing from the rundown seaside town of Chipworth, this band of very ordinary misfits come together in an attempt to pull off something truly extraordinary. Think Hot Fuzz meets Ocean's Eleven.   I feel like we're cheating a bit with this one since it's not a new show.  UK Guardian theater critic Lyn Gardner (whose recommendations we rely on heavily) says the show is "full of vim and great music." 

"Jonny and the Baptists"
Jonny and the Baptists: The End is Nigh - Last year, Jonny accidentally told his four-year-old niece that climate change would end the world. To stop her crying, he and Paddy promised to fix it. They really tried very hard…  Last year's Every Brilliant Thing, a solo show starring Jonny Donohoe, was one of my favorites and holds a special place in my heart.  How could I miss Donohoe's return with this musical comedy? 

I'm not planning to blog while I'm away (when would there be time???), but you can follow the fun on Twitter if you're interested.  My exceedingly clever handle is @Nanettecrist17.  And I'll be sure to report back on how these shows held up to my expectations.  I'm hoping for at least a 50% hit ratio!