Highlights of My Edinburgh Fringe 2017

My first Fringe experience was as a flyerer and sometimes performer in 2014, so it was a different thing to go up as a paying punter this year. Liz and I went up with a friend of hers from college; the three of us each had our own bed in our own room in a flat we rented — such luxury! We bought our meals out and didn’t make any ramen noodles — such decadence! It was definitely a pricier way to do the Fringe, even for only three nights. But it was a lot of fun. I managed to see 14 shows in 3 days, as well as many street performers. Here are my highlights. Check out these acts if you can!

Edinburgh Castle scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The stage for the Two Plus Ones show


The three young guys of the Two Plus Ones delivered nonstop, silly sketch comedy in “Huge Night In.” Luke Sumner’s characters in particular were all the more hilarious for being so wholly conceived. They had a sketch about a canon support group that had me in stitches with its utterly stupid brilliance.

We met Roisin and Chiara while queuing for their show “We Are Not Afraid”; they handed out candies and made conversation while in character as red jumpsuited oddballs. Inside, they did what seemed a hybrid sketch/improv show, including lots of audience involvement, a disco soundtrack, surrealist humor, and at one point, a wolf mask.

The 1st Annual Black Comedy Showcase was brilliantly emceed by Che Burnley, who asked white male audience members where they were from, then no matter what they answered (London, Manchester), followed up with, “No but where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” (“Germany, maybe? My girlfriend went there, she said it’s really beautiful and the people are so nice”). I hope the few confused people in the audience eventually got that he was pointing up the offensive and ridiculous nature of the same question when it’s posed to people of color on the regular. Che was a warm and friendly host, but make no mistake, he had clear intentions with this showcase. I loved it.

The standout act from the showcase was Athena Kugblenu, a London-based comedian who had one of the Jokes of the Fringe. She has this droll delivery that just kills me, and it doesn’t hurt that her mix of the personal and the political hits my sweet spot for stand-up.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Some of the lovely old buildings in Edinburgh

Spoken Word/Storytelling

The Banshee Labyrinth is one of the main centers for spoken word at the Free Fringe, and it was kind of a trip to go back there and see a show in the same little room that I’d performed in three years ago. We watched four young poets perform “A Matter of Time,” an interconnected group of poems told from the point of view of one person, at four different points in their timeline. It was a neat concept, and beautifully executed. If you like your poetry heartfelt but not sentimental, reflective but not navel-gazing, check out Ellen RentonShannon MacGregorRoss McFarlane and Bibi June.

Liz has seen Theatre Ad Infinitum shows before and wanted to see whatever they were putting on at the Fringe this year. We went to see Homer’s “Odyssey,” and were thrilled to find it was a spellbinding one-man storytelling hour. Spellbinding is not hyperbole here: I was fully immersed in the story from the first word, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the end.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The Big Top Circus Hub on the Meadows


The circus is the place to go when you want to be reminded of how amazing the human body is, and Bibi and Bichu‘s “Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” provided myriad reminders. I actually gasped in awe several times and applauded wildly every time they held a pose or finished a tumble.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience cried during 201 Dance Company‘s “Skin,” a hip hop dance show about a kid growing up and coming out trans*. The dancing was urgent and emotional, especially from the protagonist and their mother. Including a child dancer to mirror the adult protagonist was a great choice, and it’s good to see an FTM transition, which is a story not told as often as an MTF one, I think.


One of the most perfect play-within-a-plays I’ve ever seen, Willis & Vere‘s “The Starship Osiris” made me laugh for the entire show. A self-obsessed man puts on the most ridiculous sci-fi show glorifying himself, and everything breaks down spectacularly when the cast rebels. The details in the performances were spot-on, from the particular preening of the director to the facial expressions of the babed-up female crew members.

Pollyanna is the queer cabaret we all need in our lives. Polyfilla hosts, and the night we went we saw several excellent acts, including a drag king performing to a clever medley of songs about being a boy/man and Pollyfilla leading the audience in a participatory musical about Theresa May that made you laugh through the horror of the current political climate.

Nearly all of these acts are UK-based, so if you are too, be sure to check out their Twitter/FB pages in the links I’ve provided and see when their upcoming shows are. Even if you aren’t based in the UK, art travels, so why not follow them anyway in case they come to your town. If you get a chance to see any of these, I highly recommend that you do!

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

St Giles Cathedral

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Street performance on the Royal Mile


Shakespeare: The Complete Walk

To commemorate 400 years of Shakespeare’s brilliance, the Globe Theatre set up a 2.5-mile walk along the south bank of the Thames the weekend of April 23-24, 2016, showing one 10-minute film for each of his 37 plays. The films combined new scenes shot just for this walk (set in places the plays were set like Hamlet in Denmark and Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt), scenes from silent movie adaptations (on loan from the British Film Institute), and scenes from Globe productions over the years.

I had a wonderful time walking the route over the course of two days, sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own. I mistimed my Sunday and got caught up in the mass of humanity that was cheering on the London Marathon across the river, so I just squeezed in all the plays that day and finished 15 minutes before the event ended and the screens went dark.

I certainly don’t know every play, and in fact upon talking it over with my friend Liz (who knows just about every single one and has seen most of them performed too), I realized that I know the tragedies and many of the comedies, but I only know the outlines of his histories and some of the problem plays. I suppose that just gives me more to explore.

I liked that the Globe filmed scenes where Shakespeare originally set them; I think this was particularly effective with Othello & Iago alone in a Cypriot fort, where Iago could pour his poison in Othello’s ear under the hot sun; Coriolanus driving around the streets of Rome at night, Taxi Driver-style; Juliet ending it all in the tomb named for her in Verona; Richard II handing over his crown in the austere Westminster Hall; Cordelia trying to bring Lear back from madness at the white cliffs of Dover; and Falstaff carousing and philosophizing in The George pub.

Here’s a sample of what I saw, in the order of the route as laid out by the Globe (you can see the route I followed here and the list of credits & play summaries here). I didn’t always get the famous lines on video, and my camera ran out of storage space before I could get video of each film so there are still photos for those plays. The only scene out of order is Hamlet–there’s a photo of that film in order, but the video is at the very end of my movie, because I think the brief lines there offer a nice coda. Enjoy!

My Edinburgh Fringe Fest Experience

Before this year, I didn’t even know “perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest” was on my bucket list, and now it’s been checked off. Edinburgh started its international arts festival in 1947, and right away, a fringe festival sprung up to feature more experimental works, for a more affordable price. I’d wanted to go to the Fringe ever since I learned about it, and I got the chance when my friend Liz invited me up for the show she helps produce.

Live from Edinburgh, tales of woe and recovery

Live from Edinburgh, tales of woe and recovery

I stayed with the crew of Stand Up Tragedy, and flyered for my keep. I would guess at least half of the comedians at the Fringe mention the pain of flyering in their sets, since it’s a thankless job that must be done in order to get butts in seats. I didn’t mind it too much at first–I liked checking out who might enjoy the show, and telling them about it while handing them a flyer with all the pertinent info, then seeing them after the show and hearing how much they liked it. But since everyone is flyering, it can get overwhelming, and most people rushed by without another glance; and when it started raining on top of that, it wasn’t quite as fun.

Would you like a flyer?!!

Would you like a flyer?!!

But then the shows! Stand Up Tragedy runs in East London throughout the year, but since it’s a variety show, there’s nothing specific to rehearse when bringing it to Edinburgh. The core team of Dave, Liz, and Harv keep it running smoothly, guiding five different acts through the show every night. The idea is that there’s a lot of comedy out there, but not as many shows focusing on the darker side of things, and there’s plenty to explore. So every night is a mix of comedy, spoken word, storytelling, sometimes music–all about something on the spectrum of sad, from bad dates to some truly tragic themes, like abuse or death.

Ads for shows I couldn't afford lined most walkways

Ads for shows I couldn’t afford lined most walkways

Flyering beforehand and holding the hat for donations afterward meant that I got to hear a lot of different acts, and it was humbling to hear the talent up on that stage. Many people had their own shows, so after a 10-minute sample of their work, I could decide to go see the rest of their act later on in the week.

So it was intimidating to get up on that stage myself. I was in the chorus of the spring musicals in high school, and I gave several speeches to crowds in college as the leader of activist groups, but I haven’t been on stage in any capacity in about a decade. (Karaoke doesn’t count, right?) I like being the center of attention and I have a lot of stories to tell, but that’s not the same thing as performing a spoken word piece. I wrote the piece over the course of a week, and spent another week rehearsing it to myself and once for my cousin (an appreciative, if biased, audience). But getting up on that stage, finding out five minutes before curtain that I was going first, I was a little nervous.

The Banshee Labyrinth, home of most spoken word acts of the PBH Free Fringe, friendly bartenders, good fun

The Banshee Labyrinth, home of most spoken word acts of the PBH Free Fringe, friendly bartenders, good fun

I remembered what I’d learned in theater classes–speak more slowly than you think you should, talk to the back of the room, make decisive but not jerky movements. I say I remembered these things, but I’m not sure I actually did them properly. I’m pretty sure I talked too fast, and since I’m not used to audience interaction, I talked over a few laughs that Liz reminded me I should let have their full time.

I was slated to perform three times, and although I felt generally good about my first two performances, something felt a little off. I had to glance at my notes too often, and some of the sentences felt forced. So I rewrote the second half two hours before my final performance–and it was much better. Even though I’d just written it, I consulted my notes less frequently than the version I’d been practicing for weeks, which just goes to show that the changes were the right ones to make. I stopped forcing a theme and really dug into the deep loneliness of being hit by a car in a foreign country, which was truer to my experience and better for the gig. That’s probably the version I’ll try submitting to various publications (which is why I haven’t written a blog post on it yet–I’m trying to get it published).

The Banshee in the calm before the storm--shows are about to end and the people are about to have a drink between gigs

The Banshee in the calm before the storm–shows are about to end and people are about to have a drink between gigs

I got a rush from being on stage, and feeling the audience respond. One of the reasons I enjoy writing true stories is that it helps me look at my life a little differently, and performing one of those stories added another layer of perspective. I might have the bug–who wants to put me on stage next?

Being in Edinburgh for the Fringe was great for seeing people on top of their game, too. Aside from the wonderful performers at Stand Up Tragedy, I saw the shows of the following: sketch comedy group Casual Violence, storyteller Tim Ralphs, slam poet Sophia Walker, performance poet Lucy Ayrton, playwright Megan Cohen, a couple members of the sketch comedy group The Beta Males, comedian Brydie Lee Kennedy, character comedian Samantha Mann, comedian Tom Webb, weirdo rock opera gods The Mechanisms, cabaret duo The Ruby Darlings, and comedian Tamer Kattan. I recommend seeing whatever any of them is involved in, if you ever get a chance.

Cowgate was the big nightlife part of the city

Cowgate was the big nightlife part of the city

Being in Edinburgh for the Fringe meant being on a different schedule from most of the working world–getting up late, seeing shows or writing blog posts, flyering, running the show, seeing more shows, home late, wake up and repeat. But that’s the schedule I’m best at anyway, so I did just fine. Also, I drank a lot of Deuchars beer and ate a lot of chips from the chippie up the street. Liz and I befriended a few young Scottish kids, who wanted to hear about life in America. I befriended a woman on a bus who said every time she visits her family she buys a round-the-world ticket: South Africa to see her mom, Australia to visit one son, New York to visit the other son, back home. I stumbled upon a few places that feature in Ian Rankin’s novels, including the actual police station DI Rebus is based at, which pleased me greatly.

Right outside the police station where John Rebus, Scottish detective of my heart, works

Right outside the police station where John Rebus, Scottish detective of my heart, works

Dave has podcasted a few of the shows from the Fringe. A clips show with my third and best performance should be ready to go in late November, so I’ll let you know when that’s up. In the meantime, you can hear some of the acts I mentioned here if you head over to the Stand Up Tragedy website. Enjoy!

And who knows, maybe I’ll head back to the Fringe another time, at least just to see the incredible amount of creativity on display in one small city for three short weeks every year.

The first thing I heard upon arriving in Edinburgh was buskers singing The Proclaimers' "500 Miles." The last thing I heard was the sweet whine of bagpipes as I boarded my bus.

The first thing I heard upon arriving in Edinburgh was buskers singing The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles.” The last thing I heard was the sweet whine of bagpipes as I boarded my bus.

Kabuki From the Cheap Seats

I wish I’d clarified for myself that I wanted to see as many types of musical and stage performances as possible earlier in this trip. I didn’t seek them out as vigorously as I did by the time I reached Vietnam, which I suppose means I’ll just have to go back to spots earlier on the itinerary and see what there is to see. Still, I knew what I wanted when I was in Japan, and I saw a lot: a Cinco de Mayo concert, a geisha dance performance, a Beatles cover band rehearsal, a traditional lyre-type performance, and a kabuki show. My experience at the kabuki show was a great mixture of high and low, even from the cheap seats.

Outside the theater

Outside the theater

Getting a seat at a kabuki show isn’t hard, so long as you get it early and pay what is, for me, a large sum of money. But as at so many theaters throughout the world, concessions are made for the poorer theater fan. You stand in line outside the theater for at least an hour, get a ticket, and then wait for another hour before you can stand in line inside the theater to get your spot. I used my in-between hour to eat some tasty noodles from the shop next door, then went up to the fourth floor to wait in line again.

It was an efficient queuing system

It was an efficient queuing system

People were in a range of outfits, from jeans to suits, and a few women in full kimono outfits. Two women in perfectly turned-out kimono took it upon themselves to make sure I stood in the right place in line and had my ticket, and generally was all taken care of. They posed for a photo for me, and we shared a lot of smiles, but we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, so that’s as far as that friendship went. It’s all I needed to feel good going into the performance, though.

My friends in line

My friends in line

I paid extra for an audio guide in English, which was worth it. The guide gave a summary of the story before the show and then translated as the actors spoke. It was the story of an old man who needs to sell a sword to raise money for his daughter, and he approaches three warriors just returned from battle. Warrior 1 offers to buy it, and has Warrior 2 appraise it. But Warrior 3 says looking at it doesn’t prove anything. If the sword cuts through two human bodies, it’s a good sword. They find a convict facing the death penalty, and the father sacrifices himself as the second body. But when Warrior 2 does it, he only kills the convict. Warriors 1 and 3 leave in disgust, and Warrior 2 explains to the father and daughter that he purposely didn’t use the full strength of the sword because he noticed it belongs to his ancestral home (the side he’s fighting against in this war, because adoption complications). He proves it’s good by splitting a stone cistern in two, and that cistern was in the name of the play, which I can’t for the life of me remember now or find on Google.

My audio guide. Happily and slightly surprisingly, I obeyed its instructions and did not drop it.

My audio guide. Happily and slightly surprisingly, I obeyed its instructions and did not drop it.

The set was simple, a painted backdrop and a few low tables and tall screens to break up the stage. The actors wore large, stiff costumes that looked practically 2-D, and often the actors moved in deliberate, almost jerky movements. Kabuki has had close ties to Japanese puppetry for centuries, so that’s not surprising.

Kabuki is performed by all-male casts. I was surprised to learn that the form actually started with all-female casts in the early 17th century, but it was quickly deemed too lewd and subsequently outlawed. Since then, it’s been the all-male casts we’re used to associating with Shakespearean times. (Kabuki’s beginnings and Shakespeare’s peak are just about the same time, incidentally.) Apparently, women perform in some productions today, but not in the one I saw.

A quick sneak view of the theater before the lights went down and we had to put cameras away--strictly no photos during the performance, of course

A quick sneak view of the theater before the lights went down and we had to put cameras away–strictly no photos during the performance, of course

The actors spoke in exaggerated tones, the female character a plaintive whine, the narrator a sharp bark, the great warrior’s voice a sonorous command. The male characters often made that “ohhh!” sound, accompanied by a slight roll of the head and eyes, that I associate with bad imitations of dubbed martial arts films. It served a similar purpose here, it looked like, as a mocking end to a challenging statement.

Occasionally, audience members would shout out phrases (whether of encouragement or disapproval I’m not sure), especially when the actors were exiting the stage via the hanamichi, the long walkway that extended into the auditorium stage right. For years, kabuki was the common man’s theater, a combination of drama, stock comedic characters, and specific story structures that amused the masses. It was only at the end of the 19th century that kabuki performers tried to get the upper classes to enjoy and support the art. It worked, and now kabuki has several fancy theaters in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country, and it’s promoted outside Japan as a traditional, serious art. But you can’t keep the hoi polloi from their art forms entirely. People will shout out during kabuki plays, just as they will at concerts and movies.

Beautiful posters outside the theater

Beautiful posters outside the theater

I stood for the entire hour and twenty minute performance, leaning awkwardly against a rail provided for that purpose. The cheap seats aren’t even seats, as it turns out. It’s standing room only up at the back of the top balcony, crowded in with women in kimono, men in suits, teenagers in jeans. Surrounded by this cross-section of Tokyo society, all of whom clapped, laughed, and gasped appreciatively throughout the performance, I smiled to myself. This is why I want to see as many different types of performances as possible as I travel the world–to see how the varied acts affect us all the same way, lighting up our faces and moving us deeply.

New Centerstage Review Up

Other than the obligatory college performance of a Beckett play, I haven’t really seen much avant-garde or absurdist theater, and I’ve only read a few plays in the style. Generally, I enjoy the heck out of the wit and wordplay, and get annoyed by the bleak outlook. That proved to be true of the latest play I saw for Centerstage, Trap Door Theatre’s Smartphones. Here’s an excerpt from my press release:

Amelia (Géraldine Dulex) and Barbany (Chris Popio) arrive minutes apart in the living room of an absent host’s house, and they immediately start arguing about whether either of them has a key to said house. In the middle of this argument, Chantal (Jodi Kingsley) and Dagobert (Antonio Brunetti) arrive attached at the hip, and another round of arguments begins, this time concerning the number of maids employed by their host, Fede. The rest of the play is an hour-long series of similarly petty arguments and minor revelations, but every moment is entertaining.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Trap Door is on the second floor of a restaurant in the east part of Bucktown. Right by the Clybourn Metra stop, it’s this little corner of a couple restaurants, a bar, a flower shop, and a cafe. It’s a nice place for a pre-show meal or post-show drink. Enjoy!

New Centerstage Review Up

Go see this show! You know I don’t give unqualified recommendations often, so take ’em when they come. “Gotham City” is a show that catapults narrative dance out of its ballet-heavy history and into the future. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

Deahr has matched up dance styles with the status of the groups that use them: gangs use hip-hop and the Brazilian fight-dance capoeira, the upper-crust tourist couple uses ballet, and the clowns let their anarchic spirit show in contemporary moves with commedia dell’arte overtones.

You can read the rest of the review here. Okay, I guess I have a few qualifications: the taming of the shrew was annoying and overdone for most of it, but had a slightly interesting twist toward the end; and the voiceover can get a little intrusive. For all y’all who aren’t into hip hop, be warned that this is modern dance and a modern soundtrack is used (but it’s a great soundtrack).

Apparently tickets are going fast, so check it out while you can!

New Centerstage Review Up

“Lisa, you just put another review up on Tuesday! What’s going on?” Well, what’s going on is I forgot to post about that one ages ago, when I actually wrote it, and this one today is actually much more recent. It’s summer, my brain is fried, etc.

Arcas Productions is brand-new, and bless ’em for their ambition. Making Beowulf your first production is a gutsy move, and while it doesn’t entirely pay off here, there are aspects that make the company worth looking out for in the future. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

Director Jeff Lynch’s history is in dance, and it serves him well here. His performers are in constant motion, acting out the monologues delivered by various characters in a way that recalls how it may have been done back when poets told tales next to fires. The fight scenes between Beowulf and his enemies are well done, especially the last one, in which the whole cast comes together as the fearsome dragon.

You can read the rest of the review here.

New Centerstage Review Up

Red Tape Theatre’s motto is “Awake Now?” and the plays they put on are all about pushing us out of our comfort zone. I’ve seen two such shows now, and my main feeling on them is: I want to like them better. The acting, the sets, the sound design, the direction–it’s all there. But they are so self-serious! Again, I’ve only seen two shows, but just glancing at the rest of their season, it’s all doom and gloom. Nothing wrong with using theater to shake people up a bit; that’s an important use for it. But I have to be gripped by the story in order for that to work, and instead I’m sitting there wondering when I’m going to feel invested in what’s going on. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

As usual at Red Tape, the costumes (Izumi Inaba) and set design (Emily Guthrie) were a marvel of detail and atmosphere. The themes of small-town dreams, collective guilt, and American pride are clearly spelled out in this funerary tale, but the play tackles them more from the head than from the heart, and that’s where it falters.

You can read the rest of the review here.

New Centerstage Review Up

Gorilla Tango hosts a dizzying array of bare-bones theater troupes, which put on any number of energetic shows every year. Some of them are great, some of them not so much, but they’re always done with passion. And they’re cheap, too! I recommend Gorilla Tango in general. And I’ll recommend the latest show I saw there: a musical parody called Attend the Tale of Danny Tanner: A Full House Musical. The writers of the show said they wanted to cross the sitcom with Sweeney Todd, and that’s about right. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

It’s not spoiling anything to say that this is one bloody show. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Danny (Rob Speer) commemorates the anniversary of his wife’s death by finding and killing a drunk driver. Joey (Gorton) and Jesse (James Dolbeare) help him out in return for having a free place to stay, and the kids stay blissfully ignorant. That is, until Danny loses it one night during a Life Lessons moment and claims more than one victim.

You can read the rest of the review here. You do have to be comfortable with Michelle cussing up a storm, and with someone meeting a messy end every other scene. But the lyrics are clever, the performances enthusiastic, and the run time an hour. Enjoy!

Non-Equity Jeff Awards Announced

Okay, one more theater-related thing this week, and then no more til my next (potentially controversial!) review. Last week the Jeff Committee announced nominees for the Non-Equity Jeff Awards (the Tonys of Chicago), so I checked out the list to see if anything looked familiar. And lo!

Opus” — Redtwist Theatre (for Play, Director, Ensemble, Sound Design, Artistic Specialization)

A Behanding in Spokane” — Profiles Theatre (Supporting Actor)

One Flea Spare” — Eclipse Theatre Company (Supporting Actor)

Under the Blue Sky” — Steep Theatre Company (Supporting Actress)

We Live Here” — Theatre Seven of Chicago (New Work, Artistic Specialization)

Cyrano” — The House Theatre of Chicago (New Adaptation, Original Incidental Music, Costume Design, Fight Design)

The Spirit Play” — The Strange Tree Group (Original Incidental Music, Artistic Specialization)

The Sea” — Theatre Mir (Sound Design)

For my money: Opus was one of my favorite shows last year and definitely deserves Director or Play. I would not give it Artistic Specialization (it was nominated for Music Coach); one of the actors never once did vibrato on her viola!

Caroline Neff, yes, should of course win Supporting Actress for Under the Blue Sky. We Live Here was another one of my favorites and deserves a win for New Work (and Cyd Blakewell, who was also great in last year’s MilkMilkLemonade, was a standout here).

Cyrano was terrific, and the fight scenes were breathtaking. I did like the music in The Spirit Play.

Hey, eight nominated shows! Not bad. And I agree with most of the nominations for those shows. Even better. Some of the nominated shows are still running, so check them out while you still can.