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Postcards from the Fringe

Summer Banks is at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in, well, Edinburgh. But she's giving us a first-hand account of the German influence on what some consider to be the most important arts festival in the world.

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Photo by Idil Sukan

Far north in the sunny (read: constant rain) of Edinburgh (the first one that comes to mind), the international art scene gathers for a gigantic, unfiltered circle jerk every August – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And even though the German participants are limited to comedy (Henning Wehn, Otto Kuhlne, and Bodo Wartke performing in ENGLISH) this year, one still can’t escape Germany in other aspects of the festival from musicals to theater to cabaret.

It’s worth noting that the Fringe is absolutely insane. With over 2500 productions and the sheer number of visitors, it means that pretty much anything goes, and the competition for ticket sales is fierce. It’s also all about competition for reviews, a five star review during a run at the Fringe can take a new theater company a long way. Recipe for success equals plenty of pluck, a little bit of luck and a damn good marketing scheme.

And part of that marketing scheme starts with the name. This is definitely the case with Hitler! The Musical. The musical is charming, despite its subject matter – a musical trip through Hitler’s life, guided by the mustachioed man himself. The show obviously stirred controversy for what could be interpreted as a too light-hearted take on a serious subject.

On the other end of the spectrum, a student group staged a half-naturalistic version of Brecht’s Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. Fortunately the production also used some Brechtian theater techniques, which almost made their English-drama-student-in-Lederhosen over-emphatic acting tolerable. But honestly, with so many titles like Adolf, Leave Hitler to me Boys, and Frank Sinazi’s Comedy Blitzkrieg, even when well executed, as in the intimate Hitler Alone, I was left wondering why there was such a lack of pieces examining current extreme right wing activity.

History can (obviously, when done properly) be used to provide perspective on the present, and the charismatic Austrian dictator will probably remain a popular subject for theater makers – especially relevant in times of unrest and economic crisis.

On a more positive note, one of the main features of this year’s Fringe is the expansion of the cabaret section. Cabaret remains an indefinable genre, but seems to basically revolve around music, comedy, and audience interaction. And Berlin. Yes, the ghost of Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles from the ubiquitous Cabaret still haunts any aspiring cabaret act – male, female or somewhere in between. Most acts try to recreate the divas of the 1930s – a photo of Marlene Dietrich features prominently in the set of Muse Chanteuse and create fantastical characters in an attempt to do so (Cabaret Whore: More More More managed to fit four into one predictable but entertaining hour). EastEnd Cabaret with their brand of smutty entertainment and pop parodies (“Danger Wank” was a highlight) enjoyed the most success with this technique, employing ridiculous theatrical characters from some unidentified Eastern European country.

While the cabaret pieces tended to dwell in the smoky, debaucherous past, the more comical of the cabaret (or “music comedy”) pieces remain a bit more current, continuing to rip off commercial music and use audience interaction to create unique and memorable performances. Sharon Matthews smelled audience members in Sharon Matthews Superstar: Jesus Thinks I’m Funny, between well-crafted stories and rewritten pop songs. Getting the entire audience on their feet within the first 10 minutes of their show Pop Centre Plus, Frisky and Mannish also wove the over 200 member audience inside the “Udderbelly” venue (a gigantic upside down purple cow) into MTV generation pop dissection. Curious to know more? Check them out when they come to the ufaFabrik in Berlin at the end of September.