CULTURE WATCH — After not traveling for more than 15 years, I just returned from a two-month trip throughout the UK, from northern Scotland to southern England.
One specific goal was to attend my first Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s the world’s largest arts festival, with more than 3500 unique events ranging from comedy and theatre, to cabaret, circus, music, art and more performed over the course of a month. With only a week there, I opted to focus on theatre.
“Dalloway” is a one-woman show based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, from Dyad Productions. Performed by the accomplished and persuasive Rebecca Vaughan, with just a change of voice, a shift in stance, a bodily gesture, she brings an entire complement of the story’s characters to life.
To condense an entire novel in less than an hour-and-a-half and representing so many characters coherently is no mean feat but Vaughan makes it look easy. The spirit of the book was artfully rendered, the arc of the story was complete.
Dressed in a post-World War I period outfit, Clarissa Dalloway frets over the party she’s preparing and her trivial life as a socialite, reminiscing about her first true love. We meet him, too, an impetuous socialist and idealist, who has loved Clarissa his whole life. But she has married safely, and now longs for the kind of passion she once felt, while wondering about the pointlessness of her life.
Other typically British characters are amusingly and realistically evoked, but when we get to Septimus, a war veteran afflicted with shell shock, the drama of Clarissa’s existence contrasted with his tortured mind takes on a new poignancy. We witness and share in the hopes, fears and resignation that mark the distinctions between social classes but end with a sense of humanity that touches the heartstrings.
A big item on my agenda was “The Trial of Jane Fonda,” not least because she’s a famous former resident of Santa Monica, but because the Vietnam War, with which she is associated both positively and negatively, was the era when I grew up.
My feelings are mixed, but first the positive. Anne Archer does a credible job of portraying Fonda, with the right vocal intonation and bearing. But the male actors, except for the minister, all register at a one-note emotional level, with no subtlety to their rage and ranting, no distinguishing between them, and when they transition from flat-out hatred to acceptance the change is simply not believable.
The play is based on a little known true event, as Fonda and Robert DeNiro come into Waterbury, Connecticut to film a forgettable movie. The town, throbbing with Vietnam vets, raises a riotous ruckus objecting to her presence.
A staunch and very vocal anti-war activist, Fonda foolishly allowed herself to be photographed and filmed sitting upon an enemy anti-aircraft gun, smiling and singing with the Vietcong military. Hanoi Jane became the target of US soldiers’ enmity and rage, with ramifications for her career as an actress.
Interspersed with documentary news footage, Fonda is invited to meet with a group of veterans at a church, where she will be given the opportunity to explain herself and to listen to the various former military men who don’t want her filming in their town.
What follows is a lot of screaming and cursing, vile images and symbols of Fonda as Barbarella, as a urinal mat and other degradations, and with the vets yelling at her as the minister who invited her impossibly tries to keep the discourse civil.
If this play were directed better, if the differences between each vet’s rage were more modulated, and if the accents purporting to be American were more consistent, it might have been a better production. But it is a very black and white premise, and platitudes prevail. I could imagine it playing at a Los Angeles area venue but it would need to be seriously reworked. It would certainly be popular on the liberal Westside.
“SmallWar,” by Valentijn Dhaenens, a Belgian artist with his own company called SKaGen, is a quietly devastating piece that follows up his previous Fringe hit, “BigMouth,” also being performed this year. Where BigMouth focuses on the words used to inspire people to go to war, SmallWar tells the story of those called upon to do the dirty work of fighting and those affected by it.
In this profound multimedia production, Dhaenens appears onstage as a nurse at the bedside of a ravaged and dying World War I soldier, whose limbs are gone and whose face is torn apart, and who is represented by a still figure on a large screen that sits atop a hospital gurney. The nurse is resigned to her fate and his.
Dhaenens created physical projections of himself representing various states of the soldier’s consciousness, which rise in ghostly images from the body on the hospital bed screen and appear as three separate characters engaging in conversations with loved ones via an old-fashioned telephone begging him to come home, philosophizing about democracy and the glory of dying for a just cause, reading a “Dear John” letter, or dictating a letter to his unborn child, whom he will never know.
The words come from actual letters, testimonials and historical records, hauntingly punctuated by the nurse singing a capella songs including “Nature Boy,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Riders on the Storm.” A final scroll credits dozens of writings and their sources, from Attila the Hun, a Russian Crimean War chaplain, a World War I nurse, to soldiers from World War II, the Israeli conflict, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.
Potent, powerful and piercing, this production deserves wide play beyond Edinburgh.
Next week, more Edinburgh reviews, then I’ll return with news of the cultural scene in our own backyard.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.