One indication of a theater community's ambitions can be found in its efforts to export its wares. This month, two regional companies--Wordshed Productions and New World Stage--are sending works to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's largest international theater festival. Even for the avid theater-goer, the metrics are simply overwhelming: 619 companies, performing 1,491 shows in 183 different venues in bars, cafés, hotels, churches--why, even the occasional theater--scattered throughout the Scottish capital during the month of August.
Of course it's an honor to perform there. What might not be clear is that it's an almost entirely self-bestowed one. Not many people Stateside realize that the Fringe is, according to its Web site (www.edfringe.com), "an open arts festival, with no selection process." It doesn't invite or pay theater companies to perform; it charges them to do so.
Mainly, the Fringe Festival Society puts companies in touch with venues that will rent performing space to them. Some of these venues screen prospective works ahead of time for artistic achievement; others don't. In short, the laws of the marketplace rule. Literally any group with passports, plenty of ready cash to burn--and no small amount of hubris--can play the Fringe.
It's what you take away from Edinburgh that tells you if you should have gone there in the first place. At this level of achievement, a single favorable review or a sold-out house says something. Both are very rare. Before the performance date, the only thing an Edinburgh gig says for certain is that a company thinks it's ready to perform there.
In one of this summer's two cases, I agree. After a series of strikingly original adaptations over the past five years, it's easy to make the case for Wordshed's trip. But Scott Allen Pardue's earthy but considerably less accomplished scripts for New World Stage speak to a playwright still learning his craft. With Wordshed, though, fundamental questions remain about the product being exported. Is it really their best work? If not, why take it to Edinburgh?
An above-capacity crowd in UNC-Chapel Hill's Swain Hall last Saturday night warmly received Crash Diet and Other Sins, the compiled performance Wordshed Productions takes to Scotland next week. Familiar material was in abundance, with director/adaptor Sarah Whalen revisiting her 2001 adaptation of Jill McCorkle's short story "Crash Diet." Chris Chiron also took on juvenile delinquent Wesley Benfield's impersonation of a Southern holy-roller from Clyde Edgerton's Killer Diller, the one regional actor Brent Wilson first nailed in public in the 1990s. Chiron amuses in this retelling of the Creation, and his hand gestures for fish and stars are lyrical. But where Wilson's sweaty, jangled testament conveyed both levels of characterization--the impersonation and the kid trying to pull it off--Chiron's simpler treatment plays the text as a direct quote, which it's not. The strategy makes for a smoother performance, but it also obscures the character who actually said the words.
Matthew Spangler's prune-faced clergyman faces hypothetical temptress Hannah Blevins with entertaining consequences in "Preacher Crenshaw," an excerpt from Edgerton's Where Trouble Sleeps, whose primary literary contribution occurs when he vividly dubs male masturbation "playing the devil's banjo." But Edgerton's unpublished "The New Religion" rarely rises above the level of riff.
In short, these works really can't be called the equivalent of Wordshed's achievements with the works of John Cheever, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe. Which begs the question: Why is this company taking factory seconds to arguably the most demanding market in the world, and leaving its best work home?
Contact Byron Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org.