High & Low | Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Reviews – Part 2

Southern-Fried Patti Smith: Christeene

Southern-Fried Patti Smith: Christeene

Click here for Part 1

AUGUST 2 – 22:10 – CHRISTEENE: The Christeene Machine

Southern-Fried Patti Smith in drag, with a dash of acid on a bed of sleaze.

Down in the Cowgate’s smoky Underbelly venue, the audience was being assaulted by a different kind of projectile fluid (see Part 1): a suspect jet of what we can only hope was water, emanating from Austin, Texas-based drag performer Christeene’s faux-vagina.

This prop pretty much sums up the concert-cum-cabaret act: unapologetically irreverent and often gross, but with an impish childishness that makes it quite endearing at the same time.

With songs like ‘Fix My Dick’ and ‘Tears from my Pussy’ (the latter – surprise surprise – being the number that gave way to the aforementioned projectile genitalia), Christeene’s schtick is far from subtle. But coupled with the performer’s Austin Texas pedigree, the between-the-songs banter is what makes the experience truly worthwhile.

As a stage presence she is both creepy and coddling. The mismatched pupils and blacked-out teeth are suggestive of an unsavory alleyway encounter, but Christeene milks this unsettling character to entertain rather than disturb.

Playing the dazed American visitor – one from the Deep South, no less – Christeene describes Edinburgh as being “like Disneyland… only with no creepy mouse comin’ up to ya and shit”.

“There be castles, fireworks and men in skirts playin’ music outta a sack… where the fuck am I?!”

But beyond the expletive-ridden drag-hillbilly facade there’s a genuinely romantic core to Christeene’s act, if you can believe it.

Accompanied by her two trusty dancers C-Baby and T-Gavel (refreshingly against-type, they’re not shy to let some flab hang out), that the Christeene Machine is all about losing your inhibitions should come as no surprise. But Christeene is also on a mission to liberate us from the deadening structures that crush our individuality and invade on our intimate private space.

Noting how ridiculous we’d all look tapping away at our smartphones – which we’re all “slaves” to – while also negotiating Edinburgh’s often-cobbled streets, Christeene implores the audience to safeguard that “little pony inside of you”, and to not let it be harvested by the relentless and numbing churn of the zeitgeist.

It’s not too dissimilar from the right-on live performance preaching from the likes of Patti Smith (whom I was also lucky enough to catch – on my adoptive home island, no less – earlier this year). Except that thankfully, Christeene does away Smith’s brand of post-hippie pseudo-spirituality in favour of an (un)healthy dose of Southern-Fried sleaze.

AUGUST 3 – 15:30 – Simon Callow in Juvenalia

Simon Callow in Juvenalia

A politically incorrect diatribe that grasps at topical relevance, but still boasts a melancholy core if you’re patient enough to look for it.

It is a testament to the healthy variety one can find at the Fringe (if, that is, you do in fact manage to machete your way through the stand-up comedy) that you can quite literally descend into an underworld to experience an act like Christeene on one day, and then head back up the next to watch a National Treasure (™) like Simon Callow channel an ancient Roman satirist.

That’s not to say that Juvenalia, a revival of Callow’s own 1970s take on Juvenal’s Satires, puts much stock in pomp and ceremony.

Working off translation by Peter Green (as adapted by Richard Quick), the show pitches the condensed and cherry-picked selection of Juvenal’s vitriolic rants against… well, pretty much anyone and anything… as nothing other than a stand-up comedy show (the show’s poster tagline spells it out for you: ‘Stand-Up Comedy as last delivered in AD 100’).

That particular gimmick may not have been the wisest. While taking the form of a sustained monologue, much in the same way as your run-of-the-mill stand-up comedy show would – Callow’s subject is not an easy pill to swallow, and the claims of Juvenal’s contemporary relevance are strained at best.

The fact is that the Roman satirist, while acerbically entertaining, remains a product of his time. That he is ‘democratic’ in his vitriol – virtually no class of citizen or ruler is spared from his acid tongue – cannot conceal the unpleasant prejudices that power his most sustained rants.

Juvenal’s misogyny is particularly hard to root for, and the production does nothing to contextualise it in a way that would make it palatable.

But though Juvenalia is sold to us as a stand-up comedy show that happens to be delivered from beyond the grave by a long-dead historical figure, it’s saving grace is in how it differs from other exponents of the genre it’s trying to ape.

By the end of the performance, you realize that, far from being a meandering monologue, Juvenalia allows for a change of pace.

Come the final act, we’re allowed a peek into a weary Juvenal; anger takes a back seat to reveal what’s at the core of his philosophy: a call for virtue in simplicity.

Though the show doesn’t do itself any favours by trying to compete with the myriad stand-up comedy events at the Fringe, the negative backlash it’s received feels slightly disproportionate.

Rather than a still-topical piece of mordant satire, Juvenal stands on its own as an intriguing character study – a sustained ‘unpeeling’ of a bitter man which at the end allows us to see the pain within.

Though Callow delivers his lines with gusto, judging by the marketing campaign and general pitch of the show, it seems as if he may be blind to the show’s true strength… even after all these years.

Next time: SCANDIMANIA! IZZARD! 

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Crime & Punishment | Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Reviews – Part 1

Before I set off for my first-ever trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I laid out a couple of unassailable ground-rules for myself, namely:

1) No stand-up comedy. There did turn out to be an exception to this rule (more on that later, and trust me when I say that it truly was exceptional), but the fact is that the Fringe has become over-saturated with stand-up over the past few years (or so I hear from my kind hosts) and even if I wanted to delve into the comedy on show, it would take me a good couple of days to rifle through that particular section of the programme to isolate a few favourites. Which brings me to the next rule.

2) No running around like a headless chicken. Look, I know that a part of the Fringe’s appeal is that it’s a gathering of both the best and worst performing arts talent – that it’s supposed to be, in theory, a democratic free-for-all that both showcases tried-and-tested quality talent and provides a testing ground for up-and-comers. And though I understand the appeal of just wandering into – often free-of-charge – student productions and stand-up comedy shows by unknowns, I didn’t want to add that element of randomness to the hassle of finding my way around venues in a city I wouldn’t have been all that familiar with anyway.

Despite these restrictions, however, I still think I managed to pinpoint a selection of events that were both eclectic and very much worth my time. Here’s reviews for the first two – more to come!

AUGUST 1 – 14:00 – The Capone Trilogy: Loki

The Capone Trilogy by Jethro Compton Productions

A blisteringly energetic comedy of errors that owes more to classic-era Hollywood than Norse mythology.

Jethro Compton Productions set themselves an admirable challenge: perform a six-play cycle at this year’s Fringe, all of which take characters from history, literature and mythology as a starting point and transpose them to a specific historical setting: World War I in the case of ‘The Bunker Trilogy’ (Morgana, Agamemnon and Macbeth) and, well, you-know-what in the case of ‘The Capone Trilogy’ (Loki, Lucifer and Vindici).

Being a fan of trickster myths in general and Norse mythology in particular, I decided to sample Loki out of this batch of intriguing-sounding and supposedly ‘immersive’ one-act plays.

Well as it turned out the mythological hook was just that – a convenient way of labeling what is essentially a rat-a-tat pastiche of classic-era Hollywood gangster films and imbuing it with some post-facto gravitas. To wit: the only real connection to the titular Norse trickster god is our protagonist’s name: Lola Keen (!), a showgirl keen to put herself on the straight and narrow path – an ambition we see unravel in front of our very eyes as Lola consistently fails to remain faithful to her dull and morally upright husband on the eve of their wedding night.

The extent to which the production is in fact ‘immersive’ is largely down to just the size of the venue itself. Studio 7 of the C-Nova is transformed into a cramped hotel room that soon develops an often abused and potentially dangerous revolving door policy. Preece remains an alluring and likable presence throughout – the beat-perfect slapstick that underpins the entire play leaves little room for wallowing in the casual cruelty of Lola’s behaviour, instead moving things along and making sure that the gags are coming in thick and fast.

Preece’s co-stars David Calvitto and Oliver Tilney deserve the lion’s share of the credit, however, as they effortlessly alternate between a myriad of characters which run the gamut from henpecked husbands, hot-blooded Italian suitors, the good/bad cop combo, submissive bellboys and clueless gangsters.

Written by Jamie Wilkes and directed by Jethro Compton, the play is neither formally groundbreaking nor emotionally resonant, but it commits so entirely to the source material that it’s paying homage to that it can’t help but be a raucously entertaining hour from start to finish.

AUGUST 2 – 15:15 – The Lieutenant of Inishmore

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

A blood-splattered satire penned by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) that does for IRA-inspired splinter groups what Four Lions did for hare-brained Muslim fundamentalists.

This In Yer Face Theatre production not only lives up to its company’s name with a vengeance – it also paved the way to a Fringe day marked by projectile fluids (more on that in the next post).

As someone who holds the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Clive Barker and Nicolas Winding Refn as cultural touchstones, the promise of being splattered in blood during a live theatre show was bound to capture my interest either way – good thing that IYF succeed in giving McDonagh’s brutally funny script a run for its money: the cast-and-crew clearly get that, despite the frequent jets of blood and gristly acts of violence that occur during the course of this short-and-sharp one act (both on and off stage), the play is first and foremost a goofy farce, albeit one with a politically-focused satirical backbone.

Self-styled ‘Lieutenant’ of IRA splinter-group INLA Padraic (Mark Barrett) takes a break from administering brutal justice to INLA infidels after he’s drawn back to his hometown of Inishmore. The reason? His beloved cat, Wee Thomas, is revealed by his drunken father Donny (Kenny MacLeod) to be doing “poorly”.

The fact that the poor cat is beyond any help is, hilariously, what propels this (literally) bloody mess of a play into action.

The (once again) minuscule performance space at the Hill Street Drama Lodge is made to look like Dexter’s ‘kill room’, with black plastic bags coating the room from floor to ceiling. That the audience (never topping the 15-seat mark) is given ponchos to guard from the jets of splatter that we’re promised is to come adds to the excitement.

But the play itself both plays into and transcends this initial gimmick. It’s a bloody play, yes, but this isn’t a scary fun-fair ride, it’s a knowing and urbane take-down of the ignorance that underpins fundamentalist, retribution politics.

Though a penchant for gore and black humour may be necessary to go along with the ride as gleefully as the play asks you to, the gory set pieces are more Looney Tunes than torture porn, and McDonagh partakes in a noble satirical tradition which uses humour to show how grisly but supposedly righteous acts of terror are often executed by clueless idiots operating on a murky-at-best understanding of ideology.

Next time: CHRISTEENE!

Fringe & Con | Edinburgh + London break

Visiting the Edinburgh Castle too touristy? FUCK YOU, IT'S A GODDAMN CASTLE.

Visiting the Edinburgh Castle too touristy? FUCK YOU, IT’S A GODDAMN CASTLE.

I’ve taken a bit of a break from the blog over the past few weeks because I’ve taken a break from life in general.

To wit, I’m newly returned from a two-week trip to Edinburgh and London, as I embarked on a mission to escape from the Heat & Humidity combo that characterizes the Maltese Islands during this time of the year, while also taking in two major cultural events I’ve always wanted to check out but have never really had the opportunity to until now, namely the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and LonCon (aka WorldCon, aka the World Science Fiction Convention aka The Geek Convention That Clearly Suffers From An Identity Crisis).

Having these big events as bookends to the holiday was useful, because I’m a pretty shitty traveller, by all accounts.

I’m certainly not an experienced one: having been stifled by a Serbian passport for the longest time, I’ve only been freed to embark on the kind of heedless global traipsing a lot of my peers take for granted after I was finally granted a Maltese passport.

And that was only two years ago.

So I’m an inexpert and often flustered map-reader, an inexpert and often nauseous train-traveller, and a persistent shyness (coupled with the fact that I’m socially spoiled by Malta’s insular and rapidly-mushrooming social circles) makes me hesitant to meet and mingle with locals unprompted.

But as luck would have it, I have friends in both Edinburgh and London who were – once again – more than willing to open their doors to me and let me crash at their respective abodes, which automatically calmed any Nerves of Displacement I may have had and allowed me to enjoy the stuffing out of my stay.

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So I’ll be posting about some highlights from the trip in the coming days. Expect a few capsule reviews of Fringe Festival stuff I got to see, as well as some observations from LonCon.

Beyond these often wonderful ‘distractions’, you may catch hints of my total and complete love for Edinburgh: a gem of a city that somehow manages to be both cosy and cosmopolitan…

It's also gorgeous at dusk.

It’s also gorgeous at dusk.