Monday, August 11, 2014

Taking Chances at EdFringe

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was established more than 60 years ago as an alternative for performers who were not accepted into the Edinburgh International Festival (a festival that continues to co-exist today with EdFringe).  While some of the established venues (like the Traverse and Paines Plough at Summerhall) curate their shows, the festival is open to anyone who can secure a venue.  Hence, the "fringeness" of many of the performances.  While I felt that some of the more experimental theater we saw fell flat, a few shows struck a chord.

Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland --It wasn't until the third day of our EdFringe experience that we went to a show that gave me an emotional wallop.  Schizophrenia deals with a mother's and son's respective psychotic breaks.   I expected it to be an intense show, and it was.

My view of the stage during first half of performance
The theater was broken into two sides, with a wall with a center door across the middle of the stage.  The audience was asked to divide into two groups and told that we would switch sides midway through the show, with the action being replayed.

It wasn't long before a man wearing hospital scrubs and dress shoes wandered into our room.  He had a totally vacant look on his face, and I could feel his anxiety.  Who was he?  A doctor?  A patient posing as a doctor?   Before long another man joined him, and their dialogue revealed that that the second man was a patient.  I continued to be unclear, though, about the identity of the first man.  Although he was asking psychiatrist-like questions, I began to wonder if he was a visual manifestation of another identity of the patient.  (Having now spent some time online, I realize that schizophrenia is actually different from dissociative identity disorder.  Schizophrenics often suffer from delusions and hallucinations--frequently auditory in nature--while patients suffering from dissociative identity disorder have multiple personalities.  This knowledge would have altered my perceptions of the show somewhat, but not its impact.)

While the story unfolded, we could hear bits and pieces of what was happening on the other side of the wall. Sometimes an actor from one side made a cameo appearance in the other side of the story.  Two of the actors shared a strong resemblance (both had shaved heads and similar features and were the same height).  It was disconcerting, and powerful.  I thought about how the staging--with multiple voices and the split between the audience and the actors--reflected the multiple personalities/delusions of schizophrenics.

As promised, midway through the show, we switched sides.  The show began from the top, but now we were seeing the mother's side of the story.  I could hear the son's story unfolding once again on the other side of the wall.  Both seemed different than they had in the first half.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there's no happy ending in this show.  In fact, there was no resolution at all. Wendi and I were both a bit unclear as to what had transpired.  Nonetheless, I was taken with the ability of the show to drop me into the world of a psychiatric patient.   And the ensemble cast was top notch.

My rating:  4 1/2 stars (I found it engrossing and creative and highly recommend it, but too confusing to warrant a full 5 stars)

Michael Puzzo
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit -- After seeing Theatre on a Long Thin Wire, my expectations for this show had been lowered significantly.  Similar to Long Thin Wire, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is billed as having "No rehearsals.  No director.  No boundaries."  Happily, that is where the similarities between the shows end.

In each performance, a different actor reads the script cold.  Our reader was Michael Puzzo, a New York playwright who has a show in the Festival.  He was brought onto the stage by the producer and handed a sealed manilla envelope.  He opened it, removed the script, sat down in the chair, and began to read (stage directions and all).  He was terrific.

I don't want to divulge much about this show because I hope you will have the chance to see it some time.  (It has been performed around the world in 15 languages, so you might actually get the opportunity.)  I will say, though, that there's audience participation that lends a quality of lightheartedness and fun to a show that is ultimately very political.  We learn that the author, Nassim Soleimanpour, is an Iranian who cannot obtain a passport because he refuses to do the compulsory two years of military service.  Soleimanpour says, through the lips of our reader, that it "tastes like freedom to be able to travel to other worlds through [his] words" and that "it helps [him] feel we are connected."

As the tone of the play shifted, so did the demeanor of the audience.  The laughter that dominated the beginning of the show fell away, and you could have heard a pin drop as the play turned both personal and overtly political.  (The respectfulness of this audience was representative of audiences throughout the Festival.)

It was a thought-provoking performance whose use of a allegory (with audience participation) balanced out the intensity of the message.  My rating:  5 stars (wonderful, unusual, I loved it)

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