CULTURE WATCH — Sadly the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014 ended this past Monday. But what an incredible array of arts, ranging from the unwatchably boring to the outrageously outlandish and everything in between.
I sought out theatre events, but my mind can only take in so much in a week; on my busiest day I saw four productions, fortunately all at the same theatre, The Traverse, one of Scotland’s finest, at the foot of Edinburgh Castle.
“Riverrun” is almost impossible to describe because it is adapted from the final chapter of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” described as a “sound-dance” that continues to confound English majors the world over. But in the unbelievably capable hands, body and voice of the stunning Olwen Fouéré, we are privy to the voice of the River Liffy, which runs through the heart of Dublin.
I could see this twenty times over and find something new each time, but I had just one performance to appreciate the brilliance of Fouéré’s embodiment of the words, the motion, the rush and swells of the river, its life force and ultimately, its transformation as it becomes one with the sea.
I have never seen anything like this and I hope that Fouéré brings it to the U.S. Watching Fouéré, I thought I was seeing a gymnastically-adept 20-something woman, but she is in her 60s and one of the most beautiful, lithe, physically fit and vocally versatile performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe. A Traverse guest production, Riverrun is produced by TheEmergencyRoom and Cusack Projects Limited of Galway, Ireland.
Produced by Traverse, “Unfaithful” is a more straight-ahead drama, but with a unique twist. We meet two couples, middle-aged and long-time married Joan and Tom, and the young, hot Tara and Peter. Tom’s a plumber having a drink after work in a hotel lobby when Tara approaches and tempts him with her overt sexuality. They leave together, but does anything happen between them? The question remains open throughout.
Tara’s boyfriend is a male prostitute. She is trying to figure out the allure of Peter’s career because since he starting it, their relationship has suffered from a lack of intimacy. She decides to practice her own version of his job, experimenting on Tom.
The consequence of their meeting is that Joan hires Peter, not knowing he’s Tara’s partner, as revenge for Tom’s presumed dalliance. Tom will never know about Joan’s act of revenge, which may have been pointless.
The acting is topnotch, the dialogue is rapid-fire, the circumstances only slightly hard to believe and the conclusion abrupt. But it’s a thoroughly engaging production.
And it makes complete sense to me that both Benny Young (Tom) and Olwen Fouéré (Riverrun) would win the Acting Excellence Awards at The Fringe, given by the venerable arts newspaper, The Stage.
Another terrific production really should tour the U.S., adapted for U.S. consumption. It’s called “Broke,” about the way nations and individuals go into debt.
Produced by the outstanding company, Paper Birds, whose mission is to give voice to the voiceless, “Broke” is based on actual interviews taken across the U.K. in 2014 with people on the brink of poverty, due partly to their own financial ignorance, minimum wage jobs, bad eating and shopping habits, overdrawn credit cards, relentless temptations, payday and personal loans, gambling and more.
This simple but truly ingenious set features three actors, a bunk bed, a couple of boxes that get moved around during the action, subtitle-like projections with a name, age and audio statements by interviewees (Kylie, 31, “sometimes you see something and you just have to have it”), the sound of a tape being rewound to a particular sound bite, some terrific graphs of what debt and overdraft look like, and explanations of the financial system that could educate the confused as well as the knowledgeable.
In short, they’ve taken real life, turned it into a staged entertainment that pointedly leads to the question of “who’s to blame when every pound (or dollar) you spend belongs to someone else,” and concludes that “if we saved our money, the economy would crash, it needs us to keep spending,” a vicious cycle.
The only non-theatrical event I attended was Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles.” This musical exploration of what Cainer wittily calls his “midlife Kosher crisis,” is chock-full of hilarious rhymes alongside both serious and poignant lyrics in songs that he has written about rediscovering his own and his family’s history.
Opening with “God Knows Where,” Cainer sings about his father’s father, his mother’s mother, “we come from here, we go to there, in a journey to God knows where,” introducing both his family’s and the universal experience of leaving a familiar home for parts and future unknown.
In “A Tale of Two Tailors,” a ragtime/klezmer number about his two great grandfathers, Cainer relates the close friendship and working partnership, and later the vicious rivalry between the two, one of whom would go on to success and riches while the other remained poor, claiming his stolen idea was the source of that success.
The family may be Modern Orthodox, but an unusual threesome grew out of a relationship with “Aunt” Rae, not really a family member, but a close friend of Grandma Sophie, with whom she taught immigrant children. Grandpa was prone to depression but whenever Rae was around, his spirits would lift.
On Fridays, at Sabbath dinners, she and he would hold hands under the table, the closest they ever would come to having physical relations. It’s an innocent bliss as sung by Cainer.
Later he shares his own father’s actual dalliance, involving the Wash-a-rama Laundromat and a woman who demands he tell his wife about the baby he’s given her. Mom’s revenge? Harold. And a divorce.
Cainer projects some vintage images of the family and a cute video of his father, which help remind us these are real people he’s singing about, amusingly and touchingly. Find out more and listen at www.danielcainer.com.
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.

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