Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Day Eight: Mini-Reviews from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #28
Lost in Blue
Debs Newbold

One woman stands before us and on-the-spot creates an incredible sound track of effects to accompany the solo telling of her multi-layered, multi-character story that entices and grips with its mysteries, memories, and magic.  Debs Newbold, both writer and performer of Lost in Blue, is nothing short of astounding in her abilities to hold an audience in rapt attention every second of the ninety minutes with a tale of a family still dealing fifteen years later with the aftermath of a father’s car accident.  Her story bounces us between deep inside the dreaming mind of the father’s otherwise non-responding body and on the still body’s outside where his eighteen-year-old daughter has taken on the impossible mission to use her own artistry to bring her artist dad back to life.

Even as she switches voices and persona from Annie the daughter to Sarah the Mom, Candy the Aunt to Leonard the neighbor, Debs Newbold is continuously creating and then replaying the sounds of a life-giving ventilator, cooing pigeons, a leaky roof, or seemingly dozens other effects.  She is also taking us inside the mind of Annie’s dad, Paul, as he lives in his own protracted dream inside Vincent Van Gogh’s famous house in Arles, there with the master himself. 

As her story unfolds, there are mother-daughter conflicts that appear at times unresolvable, an eighteenth birthday party that turns into a disaster, daughter discoveries about the artist within her, and a daughter’s guilt about how she may have at three years old contributed to her dad’s accident.  There is also a beautiful theme of a blossoming, loving father-daughter relationship that forms after a fifteen-year separation – a relationship where only the daughter is conscious of what is happening, or so she thinks.  All of these storylines and many more are told in a non-stop repertoire by a master teller and special effects artist extraordinaire.

Rating: 5 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #29
Letters to Windsor House
Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit

At 467 Peach in Woodbury Downs, Louise and Rebecca live in a flat they describe as “what it lacks in visuals, it makes up in scents.”  There, they are awakened each morning at 7 a.m. through the paper-thin walls by the thunderous hip-hop music blasting from the guys below them (to which they respond with trumpet, trombone, and mad stomping) while also hearing the lady above them sweep her floor ever so “tenderly.” 

In this transitioning neighborhood where the homeless camp in streets and parks, only to be moved by the construction of million-pound condos, the roomies live in one of the remaining, run-down council houses (public housing) built almost fifty years prior.  And their abode is crammed packed with boxes and boxes stacked high of mail they receive daily from former residents long gone – mail they have felt obligated to keep in case the rightful owners some day show up looking for it.

Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit of Sh!t Theatre perform the world premiere of Letters to Windsor House, created by them in conjunction with Camden People’s Theatre.  In white face with stripes over their eyes – a bit like criminals on the prowl – they unfold a wild and wooly tale of their decision to start opening the thousands of pieces of mail (Is it legal?) and then to re-construct the lives of the rightful recipients based on the envelopes’ contents.  There’s JD O’Hanley whom they are sure has a serious tax debt issue and Saad Madras with a penchant for gambling gone amuk.  Both get crazy songs and dance routines created for them by the two mail cat-thieves. 

But the person they get to know most and begin to worry about his well-being is Rob Jewek, who gets lots of mail about baby milk.  After rocking out in hilarious screaming that “Rob Jewek is an Adult Baby,” they go on a mission to find the real Rob and to be sure he is not depressed and about to jump off some bridge.  We share this ever-zooier journey with them, following along via the videos the two have created and are constantly showing on the screen behind the stacks of boxes and a couple of old, tattered chairs.

On that same screen, we also get ongoing glimpses of their neighborhood that is fast undergoing gentrification for the newly rich and simultaneous decimation of long-time, neighborhood businesses; run-down homes; and yes, places for street people to live in their boxes and tents.  The messages they want us to discern about such government-blessed changes are crystal clear even though the two mail-intruders spend most of their time with us telling, singing, dancing, and raving about their discoveries via others’ opened mail.  (There are also time-outs when they appear as red mailboxes to discuss their own up-and-down, but very close relationship as roomies and friends.)

The overall performance is brilliantly conceived and presented.  Louise and Rebecca’s Letters to Windsor House is brimming with off-the-wall humor, genuine heart, and not-so-subtle messages of social and political importance – the last equally relevant to London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, or scores of other cities around the globe.

Rating: 5 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #30
Bubble Shmeisis

Standing before us in terry-cloth robe and a long, cotton wrap down to his bare feet, Nick Cassenbaum begins his Bubble Shmeisis (Yiddish for grandmother’s story or tall tale) by inviting us to take longs breaths in and out, something we will be asked to repeat several times during the upcoming hour.  In between our collective moments of calm, Nick takes us along as he recounts going with his aged grandfather, Papa Allen, to the last, remaining schvitz haus (“sweat house” or bath house) in East London.  Once there, in a sea of wrinkled, Jewish men many decades older than he, Nick tells us how he totally unrobed and got schmeised (washed with a large, horse-haired brush and soap) by one of them – something he reenacts for us but in this case, by a selected audience member closely matching the appropriate age of one of the alter cockers.

But along the way, Nick also reminisces with us about his upbringing, Jewish and otherwise – summer camp, barbershops, a trip to soccer game with his dad (where he got no treats or souvenirs).  His memory even goes back to the first time he got to compare his schmok to a friend’s schmok at school while they both peed in a trough, at which time he discovered “what makes my schmok different from all other schmoks.”  To his horror, he realized that he had less than his non-Jewish pal, who had something “like a piece of loose bacon” wrapped around his to make it longer.

Accompanying his bubblescheisis throughout are clarinetist John Macnaughton and accordion-master Tom Baker, who sound off in kletzmer and Broadway manners alike.  As the show’s director, Danny Braverman has orchestrated Nick’s performance, clearly with a little tongue-in-cheek at times. 

With much humor and a conversational manner as if talking to his new, best friends (that’s us), Nick Cassenbaum entertains with his stories and educates about near-extinct, Jewish bathhouses.  But equally important, he also provides an intimate, heart-warming look at how he discovered that day in the Canning Town Schvitz what is important to him about who he is and what he wants to pass on someday to his kids and grandkids.  And that leaves everyone smiling and even kvelling for him as they leave the small theatre.

Rating: 4 E

Photo by Gence Barbar

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #31
In Fidelity
Rob Drummond

How can one see almost thirty-five shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and not see one complete turkey?  The inevitable finally happened for me in Show #31, even at the revered and consistently reliable Traverse Theatre.  So bad (in my opinion) is this world premiere, that I would have left a few minutes into it; but my and my husband’s seats were positioned such that we would have not only disturbed the entire packed-to-the-gills audience, but would likely have been pulled onto the set and into the abominable show.

Well-known Scottish playwright and actor, Rob Drummond, brings his newest work to the Fringe, created in conjunction with High Tide and Traverse Theatre.  Touted as a gift to his wife for their fifteenth anniversary (maybe he should have gone with the traditional choice of crystal?), In Fidelity is nothing more than a live reality show ... and a bad one, at that.  (Full confession:  I hate reality TV, which I refuse to watch or follow; so how can I be unbiased about this new show?) 

Audience members who are single get to volunteer to be on stage to whittle several volunteers down to two whom Rob judges to be most compatible.  Those two are then the focus for the next hour or so to see if they could possibly be a permanent pair (or at least a one-time date).  The two are subjected to increasingly personal questions about themselves and their love-life preferences (but with always the option not to answer anything they do not want to reveal), to reading the script of a play, to having unscripted conversations with each other in front of a full audience, and other inane (and I pick the word purposefully) assignments given them by Rob the host. 

And, to make matters worse, Rob spices the entire proceeding with his own thoughts and research about love (and his own experience of creating an online dating persona).  He also asks questions of the audience like “What is your definition of love?  To my horror, a number eagerly volunteer to answer him with serious, syrupy-sweet answers -- including a twenty-something guy sitting next to me who by this point, seems to be really emotionally caught up in this contrived mess!

As if this show could not be more atrocious, the three initial volunteers the day I stumbled mistakenly into the arena are two sisters and a bi-sexual man.  (Rob was very disappointed there were only three; I think he normally gets twice that many.)  Now, everyone already knows that the two sisters cannot be the final two participants, or we would have possible incest.  (Mr. Nice Guy, Rob Drummond, certainly is not about to go there.)  So, the contest becomes which of the two, single sisters is going to be tested, interviewed, and put in total embarrassing spotlight with Mr. Bi-Man for over an hour to see if the audience and the lucky pair themselves will elect that they should go on a real date.  To make matters worse, the final two are soon taking this seriously and often also taking (especially the guy) a L-O-N-G time to think about and answer the questions posed to them now by not only Rob, but also by audience members.

(Kill me now, please.)  What really pissed me off the most -- and frankly scared me a lot -- is how much most everyone but me and my hubby were clearly into this whole eighty minutes of pure torture and how loudly and enthusiastically most of them applauded at the end (with the young guy next to me quickly jumping to his feet for his own standing ovation!).

So, maybe I am just a weird or cynical guy and the one person in all the world that hates anything that looks like reality TV being produced by a legitimate company like Traverse as live theatre.  Having said that, I can in no way with good conscience recommend anyone go see In Fidelity (unless live dating games involving random people off the street placed in the starring roles is your thing).

Rating: 1 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #31
Ross Dunsmore
Traverse Theatre

Three couples who are at very different stages in their lives and their relationships all come to realize that while food for varying reasons is a key concern and focus for them, the real milk for life’s sustenance is love.  That realization comes to each with some very difficult choices and sacrifices, and crises of conscience come into bear at some point for at least one member of each couple as the meaning of true, unconditional love becomes finally clear.  Traverse Theatre premieres as part of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival the first full-length play, Milk, by actor and writer, Ross Dunsmore.  This initial outing, directed by the company’s Artistic Director Orla O’Louglin, at times brings smiles and draws big laughs, at times elicits gasps and an impulse to look away, and at times ensures more than a few tears are trickling down audience cheeks. 

With both a birth and a death playing major roles in the play’s stories, Milk spans and touches epic-size themes by focusing on the day-to-day details of the three couples, often dealing something about food.  Cyril and May are an elderly couple holding out in a building condemned for destruction with no heat, no food, no light; but they have each other and memories stretching back to World War II, which May says, “You won the war ... for me ... You’re my hero.”  Tam Dean Burn and Ann Louise Ross both give touching, heart-wrenching performances as their story intertwines with the other two.  When May dances with Tam her last dance in life to “You’ll Never Know Just How Much I Love You,” our hearts break almost as much as his.  Their love is life itself, and it is that love that leads Cyril to take an action that jeopardizes his own life’s well-being.

On the other end of the age spectrum, Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega are teens Steph and Ash who are big buds, with Ash clearly wanting -- even demanding -- much more.  Steph is bold, brassy, and even crass in her attempts to get Ash to do more than concentrate on his PERi-PERi chicken from Nando’s.  Ash is not sure he is ready and tries to joke, make nice, and just be pals.  Steph’s hormones are clearly bubbling over, and she is pushing for much more.  Both actors are superb in putting the issues of teens in lust, in love, in like and in between – and being totally confused by it all.

Steph’s teacher, Danny, is where she turns for some possible relieving of her need for love and attention.  Trouble is, Danny is twice her age; she is under-age; and Danny has his own issues with a wife who has just had a baby that she now refuses to feed because her nipples are bleeding.  Ryan Fletcher as Danny is sex-hungry and sex-deprived while his wife is in final pregnancy and not interested. Once she has given birth, Melody Grove as Nicole freaks out that the one thing she most wanted to do as a mother -- provide her baby life’s sustenance through her breasts -- is impossible for her to do.  Refusing to allow Ryan near her or the baby leads to a relationship crisis that provides both actors great opportunities to shine in their skills.

Further intersections of the three stories occur in Ross Dunsmore’s script, offering both more life-threatening crises as well as life-affirming resolutions.  Fred Meller has designed a large, rectangular platform/table that centers the stage, complete with doors that open to support the different couples’ stories and to offer magical avenues for needed refuge or escape.  His high-tech design is greatly defined and enhanced by vertical strips of light that cross the back stage that Philip Gladwell has designed to combine with other lighting to highlight the different and intertwining scenes as well as the moods within them.  Danny Krass pulls everything together with a sound design that fits the wide range of ages and the subject matter of love and life.

Milk at times becomes a bit jolting in its back-and-forth stories, sometimes leaving one a bit too soon before there is understanding clearly of what is happening and particularly, why.  But overall, the direction is flawless in ensuring that the sum of the parts is greater than any of them separately.  What sustains us in life becomes evident by stepping back and taking in the total of the difficult journeys these six undergo, journeys made all the clearer and richer in meaning by stellar performances all.

Rating: 4 E

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