Arts » Performing Arts

Postcard From Edinburgh

Politics and musicals across the ocean

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SEPTEMBER 1 -- Hi there, Loafers! Sue and I are completing our eighth day in Scotland, and we can pass along a few recommendations. For starters, if you're looking for the biggest and best summer arts festivals anywhere, come here to Edinburgh in August.

But do bring your longies. Real summer weather, Carolina style, doesn't happen here. So far, the mercury hasn't reached even 20 C (that's 68 F for the metrically challenged) -- and there's no such heat wave forecast during the remainder of our stay.

Festival fever is keeping us warm. We've been gorging on the Edinburgh International Festival (August 14-September 4) and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (August 7-29), taking in a total of 20 performances. The International features cutting-edge opera, top-flight dance companies from both sides of the Atlantic, an enticing mixture of theater classics and newly commissioned works, and world class symphony orchestras, vocalists and classical instrumentalists in concert.

Morning, afternoon and a cluster of evening events are sprinkled among 10 different venues beginning daily at 11am. We've delighted particularly in Matthias Goerne singing Mahler at Usher Hall and Bernarda Fink singing Schubert at Queen's Hall -- accompanied by the impeccable Roger Vignoles. The marathon "Synge Cycle" at King's Theatre, featuring the complete works of Irish playwright John Millington Synge -- and the acting exploits of Marie Mullen in five of the six plays -- will linger in my theater memories alongside days I've spent with Kushner's Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2 and the nine acts of O'Neill's Strange Interlude.

Fringe concentrates most heavily on theater and comedy, but we also found musicals, dance and even an opera. Spread out among nearly 300 venues around town, Fringe events are a constant beehive of activity, starting late in the morning with the last shows ending well past midnight.

We arrived early on August 25 and plunged straight into the Fringe after the sun went down. Fringe map in hand, we walked from our suite on Grosvenor Crescent through a light rain -- and bone-chilling wind -- to the Royal Botanical Gardens where we hoped to see an outdoor performance of Children of the Sea. We found the East Gate to the Gardens was locked, making it likely we'd be late for our first event.

Luckily, we also found a taxi -- a mode of transport that has yet to catch on in Charlotte. When we reached the West Gate, action was just beginning. And a most wondrous voyage of theatrical reclamation it was.

Children of the Sea is as much an outreach project as it is a theatrical production. Among the cast are over a dozen Sri Lankan children, ages 14-19, who survived last year's tsunami. Echoing their healing through an immersion in theater, the play begins with the children in a temporary shelter. There they are told -- and we are shown -- the story of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It's a tale of prolonged suffering, wearisome travels across the sea and ultimate healing and redemption. During the show, we traveled to no fewer than four different places in the Gardens to witness the story -- flavored with vivid Sri Lankan costuming, gorgeous ceremonial dancing and zesty music.

Most magical was when the dancing and ceremonial fire were staged on a knoll opening out on the majesty of Edinburgh Castle, all lit up in its nighttime glory a mile away, afloat in the dark sky. Our press contact had told us to bring blankets, a very helpful hint. Wearing layers that included a light sweater, a heavy hooded sweater and a hooded poncho, I felt pretty toasty. The spicy Sri Lankan barbecue on sale at the gate also helped.

Edinburgh's embrace of the Fringe Festival is inspirational. Multiplex movie theaters are converted into round-the-clock theater and comedy venues. So are churches, believe it or not. Can you imagine dozens and dozens of churches in Charlotte opening their doors to traveling theater troupes and hosting their productions?

Relevance and political awareness are watchwords at both the Fringe and the International Festivals. After our first three days in Edinburgh, it seemed pretty evident that artists here are more concerned about the Iraq War and Middle East unrest than we are in the States. Last Friday morning, we saw a powerful new opera at Fringe, Manifest Destiny, where the protagonists were a Jewish composer and his Palestinian spouse.

At the International, there was Prayer Room, a newly commissioned piece that explored the conflict between Muslims, Christians and Jews on a university campus. The International also staged the first British production of John Adams' opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which explores the terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.

Serving my loyal legions of Loafers, I'm always scouting trends that are likely to impact here in Charlotte. So I trained my crosshairs on a burgeoning species that is causing a sensation at both the New York and Edinburgh fringes. With Bat Boy, Seussical and Menopause already a success here -- and Doctor Doolittle on the near horizon -- you may have noticed that more and more tuners are showing up with titles that are broken in half by colons, dashes or commas, and concluded by the ponderously redundant "The Musical."

Dracula and Captains Courageous are among the latest in the cavalcade to hit Broadway. On the Off-Broadway scene, Silence: The Musical was catching everybody's eye at this year's Fringe. Well, there were even more outre and perverse titles here, including Apocalypse -- The Musical and Yeehad! The Musical. Finally, we reached a new plateau with LHO: Lee Harvey Oswald -- The Musical. Prompting the inevitable question: Are musicals in the new millennium suffering from colon cancer?

No doubt about it, my odyssey through all three of these pocket musicals tells me that we need to brace ourselves. While one generation of composers and librettists is thoughtfully exploring multiculturalism and terrorism in Klinghoffer and Manifest Destiny, another generation is rising. As evidenced by Yeehad! and Apocalypse, their silliness and irreverence are limitless.

Strangest of all the musicals in my colonoscopy was LHO, largely narrated by Lee Harvey's mother, Marguerite (courtesy of the Warren Commission). Awhile after that mutant was over, Sue told me that the man sitting near us was weeping during the performance. She couldn't tell whether his tears were for Oswald or for JFK.

Judging from the ambiguous attitude of the musical, I'd say the wife had a point.

-- Afton Townhouse, 10 Grosvenor Crescent, Edinburgh, Scotland

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