I’m not sure if it was by design or just a happy accident, but our visit to Edinburgh coincided with the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Lots of cities have “fringe festivals” these days. Usually, they feature an assortment of painfully wretched theatre and dance “performances” that feel so far off-Broadway that you wonder if they’re from another planet. If you’ve ever had to sit through a university drama major’s senior final project, then you know what I’m taking about. But, the Edinburgh Fringe is different.
Far from being a small batch of “underground” performances, the Edinburgh festival dominates the entire town for a solid week. Every available theatre, bar, loft, spare room and garden shed is rented out for performances. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Edinburgh had more theatre seats than New York City during this two-week festival.
The catalog of events describes literally hundreds of performances, ranging from Shakespeare to stand-up. Yes, there are some awful-sounding “performance art” pieces in there, but the emphasis here is on comedy. That’s what really sets this festival apart. And, as a result, Edinburgh has become the make-or-break venue for every aspiring British comedian or comedy writer for the past ten years. A good review here can launch you into your own TV sitcom.
I wish I could’ve spent more time here, checking out more of the shows, but as we were only in Edinburgh for the weekend, we settled on four.
First up was a play called The Gaydar Diaries. I have to be honest here. We were both expecting it to be awful, and our main reason for seeing it was the hope that the hunky shirtless guy on the poster was featured in the play. Terrible, I know. As it turned out, the poster boy wasn’t in the show, but it didn’t matter because, to the entire audience’s surprise, the play was actually good.
Gaydar.co.uk is Britain’s premier “dating” website for gay men. Of course, by “dating” I mean “chatting online and arranging to meet up for casual sex”. It sounds simple (and more than a little sleazy), but the reality is more complicated than you’d expect, and the play relentlessly mocks the (usually disappointing) experience. My favorite bit was a recurring joke: “…meanwhile, on Gaydar Antarctica…” Cut to a lone scientist in a giant fur-lined parka, sitting at his icy computer, typing “Hellooo? Hellooo?” in a futile attempt to meet someone at the South Pole. Eventually, the only other gay man in Antarctica invites him to chat, and the response is, “Ugh, not you again!”
Our second show was called Die Clatterschenkenfietermaus vs. Malcom & Miriam. No, I’m not making that up. Earlier in the day, we saw a guy (one of the dozens handing out fliers for shows) holding a sign that begged, “See Germany’s worst pop band tonight!” And really, who can turn down an offer like that? What we got was a two-part comedy act that echoed elements of two great Saturday Night Live sketches: Sprockets and The Culps. The idea was that Die Clatterschenkenfietermaus (gibberish German, if you’re wondering) is a legit German new-wave duo that can’t get it’s own time slot at the festival, so it has to share billing with Malcom & Miriam who are essentially bad motivational speakers (they have a Powerpoint presentation) on the subject of love and relationships. And all four people are played by the same two guys. If you’re thinking this sounds painfully bad, you’d be right… under normal circumstances. But, here at the festival, in a claustrophobic room-above-the-bar-turned-theatre, it wasn’t half bad. There were even hecklers.
Unfortunately, there were no hecklers at the only actual stand-up comedy show we watched. There wasn’t much of an audience, period. The show was called Bent Double, and featured three gay (mostly lesbian) comics. For some bizarre reason, this show was held not in a club or cabaret setting, but in a small theatre. And, even though it was midnight on a Friday, only about seven people showed up. The emcee for the evening (lesbian again) did her best to try to liven things up, but it was really a lost cause. As each successive comedian came out to tell their stories and jokes, the audience sat there completely unmoved. The jokes weren’t bad; they just weren’t very funny. In a room full of 100 people, you could expect a smattering of laughs from some part of the audience at least some of the time. But, with only seven people, the silences get a lot more pronounced.
I really can’t remember when I’ve spent so much time notlaughing at something that was supposed to be funny. I mean, it’s one thing to see an un-funny movie where there’s a celluloid barrier between you and the actors on the screen. After all, Tom Green and Pauly Shore will go on doing their lame shtick whether you laugh or not. But, when it’s just you and a live comedian, standing four feet in front of you, and you can see the sweat dripping off her forehead as she realizes this is the third joke in a row that’s bombed… well, as an audience member, you just feel uncomfortable. You kind of wish a polite way existed to say, “Really, if you’d rather just cut your act short, it’s okay with us. You don’t have to torture yourself like this.” Things weren’t helped by the fact that the stone-faced silence from the audience was intermittently interrupted by loud rock music seeping through the walls of the theatre next door. Faced with the competition from the unseen metal band on the one hand, and the barely-there audience on the other, one performer lost her train of thought, took forever trying to remember where her humorous anecdote was going, and eventually gave up and walked off stage half way through her act. Sad, yes, but unfortunately not as much as if she had stayed there.
Finally, for our forth and last show, Derek and I chose someone we knew would be dependable, because we’d seen him before. This was drag artist Joey Arias, who’s probably best known as the emcee for the “adult” Cirque du Soliel show Zumanity in Las Vegas. In the Vegas show, Arias appears as a stout leather-bound drag-queen dominatrix version of Joel Grey’s creepy androgynous emcee from the musical Cabaret. But in the Edinburgh show, Strange Fruit, Arias had a slightly softer look, and performed an absolutely spot-on vocal impression of an older Billie Holiday (after the drugs kicked in in the 1950s). He says he’s “channelling” her, whatever that means. I’m pretty sure it involves studying endless hours of video and audio recordings. In any case, the result is pretty amazing. It’s also a little disconcerting, hearing Billie Holiday’s voice coming out of a 6-foot tall white man in drag. But even the hand and body movements are those of Lady Day. And, just to let you know he’s not lip-synching, Arias drops a few “extra-naughty” lyrics in here and there. In all, it was a great way to end the festival.
More info: The Edinburgh Fringe Festival