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Themes for the Day: Baking Enemies into a Pie and Steampunk

UNITED KINGDOM | Sunday, 24 August 2014 | Views [324]

Thursday began the same way so many disjointed days in our history of attending the Edinburgh Fringe have begun. We went to Shakespeare for Breakfast.

Shakespeare for Breakfast is a consistently entertaining show featuring Shakespearean characters, croissants, and orange juice or coffee. The croissants are a little disappointing, but the show makes up for it. I could go to other places for breakfast,  but most restaurants would look at me like I was crazy if I started quoting Shakespeare.

We came in, (we'd bought our tickets two days earlier. Despite being a 10 am show, they were sold out when we tried a single day in advance) took our breakfast, and found seats. We were well over 15 minutes early. Most shows spend the 15 minutes before start frantically getting set up. It's an advantage to a morning show.

When my sister and I came in (our parents went in before us), two of the actors recognized us as Rosalind (my sister) and Celia (me). They asked about Orlando, to which my sister responded he was hungover. After we were seated they asked other audience members if they'd seen Touchstone (I missed my opportunity to say "not since the wedding.") A little later they came back and recognized my sister as being Titiana, bit didn't have the opportunity to reassign my name, since the lights dimmed and the show started.

The first scene was a woman who had washed ashore during a storm. A hunchback appears and starts talking about the "autumn of our discontent," and the woman tries to get answers out of him. He starts to hit on her, making her cover her hair in a hat and pretending to be a guy, Steven. The hunchback introduces himself ("I I I am Richard I I I. Richard the third,") says they're in Shakespeareland,  and offers her a job to give a letter to Tamora. The currency is meaningless to the shipwrecked stranger, but she accepts.

Steven (real name Stephanie) goes off blindly. She soon meets a lively sprite and a dashing young man. She asks them for help, and they ask to see the letter. Steph, ruled more by heart than mind, shows them. It works out because this man is Henry V, a good guy concerned with foiling the plot of the villains. They dash off.

To save on accommodation costs, the 8 characters of Shakespeareland have only 4 bodies. Specifically, Richard III and Hamlet look similar, as do Tamora and Kate, (Taming of the Shrew Kate) Henry V and Iago, and Ariel and 3rd Witch. Steph discovers this when she successfully delivers the message and then tries to demand payment from Hamlet.

Hamlet is exceedingly whiny, and benefits much from Kate's sarcastic company. Harry is brashly arrogant, but Steph is charmed by him. Tamora is a goth in the modern sense, and Iago constantly lies, deriving much amusement every time Steph believes him. ("It's that way. Ha ha ha.")

The villains get together to plot the destruction of Shakespeare. They discuss a variety of plans (unsurprisingly, Iago wants to convince Shakespeare his wife is cheating on him and Tamora wants to bake him into a pie), then conclude the meeting. (Third Witch: "When shall we four meet again?" Tamora: "I'm free tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.") And off they go. Steph is quickly swept into the plans of the heroes to counteract them.

Hamlet catches sight of Third Witch, and they promptly fall in love Romeo and Juliet style. Meanwhile, Tamora is in love with Steph, who loves Henry, who unwittingly taunts her with comments of "if you were a woman..."

The villains appear to kill Shakespeare, but find only a pile of bones. ("Alas, Shakespeare, I knew him so well.") Then they leave, and the heroes come on. Steph, a lighting technician, breaks the fourth wall and suggests the characters go introduce themselves to the audience. Henry goes over to someone in the front row and, in the loud, slow tone of voice the stereotypical Americans use to talk to foreigners, introduces himself. In the same tone of voice, the man responds "hello. I'm Wilfred."

Once a few introductions are made, Steph suggests they hide in the audience, since the villains can't resist sharing their plans with the audience. So they scatter. Ariel ends up sitting on the laps of some people behind me, but Henry, to my right, is the more obtrusive one. "Excuse me. Prince coming through. Out of my way." They settle, and we all watch the stage.

"Maybe some of us need to leave for them to appear?" One of them suggests.

Oh. Duh. Hamlet and Kate leave. Soon, Richard and Tamora appear on stage. Richard is still eating a croissant. As they reveal their dastardly plan to edit The Complete Works, Henry throws a croissant at them. One of the audience members take the fall for him.

Hamlet becomes convinced that Kate and Iago's antagonism (Iago makes a comment about her needing a husband. Kate: "I need a husband as much as a fish with a city bus pass needs a broken bicycle that is on fire.") is cover for deep love. In the presence of Kate, he talks loudly to Steph about how he overheard Iago saying he loved Kate. She is stirred by this new knowledge.

In the next scene, Henry and Richard search in vain for The Complete Works. The ghost of Shakespeare (really Steph covered in a sheet) appears to tell them that they must settle this with a rap battle. All of the characters were surprisingly good rappers, coming up with some nice insults and rephrasing of famous lines. (Henry, to Richard: "your kingdom was only worth a horse." Hamlet: "I'm the prince of words, words, words.") Unsurprisingly, it ends in a victory for the heroes, although Steph is forced to reveal herself and promise "as she is a man," to marry Tamora.

At the end, in a cross between As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and a happy Romeo and Juliet, Steph avoids marrying Tamora by revealing her true gender, (she subsequently gets Henry V) Iago and Kate can reveal their feelings for the other, and Hamlet and 3rd Witch get together. All in a days work in Shakespeareland.

We went back to our apartment for lunch and then set out for High Noon Over Camelot. A few days prior, a man handing out fliers had caught the attention of my sister and I as, with cautious curiosity, we walked closer to someone dressed steampunk. He'd been describing it to another person and said "King Arthur in space." As we reached for a flier, he added that it was free. Sounds like a plan.

We walked towards the venue. As we walked down the Royal Mile, we saw some of the actors from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Specifically, Basil, a guitar player, and several of the women. We stopped to pick up a flier, express a tentative interest in Sweeney Todd, and give them a round of applause. Then we continued on our way.

So off we went "down the creepy alley," as the flier instructed us. "Creepy alley" was a terrible description, as it was well-lit and rather friendly looking. If it hadn't been for the man standing out front helping to guide us, we might have missed the show and ended up in much shadier areas of town.

So. High Noon over Camelot. Take some of the most famous King Arthur stories. Now take someone who loves westerns, have him read the stories and come up with a script. Send that script to an editor, who says "I like where this is going, but do you know what audiences love? Space!" Now send this revised space western to a band, who spends a while staring at it blankly until they finally figure out how to replace some of the narration with music. If you did that, you'd probably end up with something a bit worse than High Noon over Camelot.

High Noon over Camelot was enjoyable, though there were times that the sound was a little off. There was a frame story of a spaceship, with the crew offering entertainment, though that framing didn't seem to have much of a point. It also had a downer ending, with literally every characters' dreams being destroyed right before they die. To make up for this, they had a finale song of "What do You do with a Drunk Space Pirate." I couldn't hear the words because the audience was clapping so enthusiastically. They then asked for donations with the request that we think of how many stars we would give it and leave that many pounds. Alternatively, for £5 we could get a CD, for £9 we could get the CD of Camelot and a CD of fairy tales, and for £12 we could get the CD of Camelot, the CD of fairy tales, and a CD of Greek myths, presumably in the same style as the performance we'd just watched. We bought all 3.

As we left, it started to rain. My parents decided it was worth watching another free show and followed the directions of a person advertising right outside the venue. My sister and I continued walking, though a bit later decided to stop for a hot chocolate. We enjoyed it, and watched with amusement as the previously empty coffeeshop filled up. That's what you get in a city where sitting for an hour to wait out the rain works.

As we were walking down High Street, we saw one of the performers from High Noon over Camelot out advertising the show. We told him we'd seen it, and thought it was very good. As we walked away, we realized they'd beat us back. Granted, we'd stopped for hot chocolate, but still. They'd finished their show, packed up, and headed straight back to High Street in the pouring rain. That's impressive.

Also impressive, the people from The Picture of Dorian Gray were still around, and Basil remembered us. I would have thought that with their costumes, they would have wanted to get out of the rain. But they had umbrellas and were giving out fliers. Basil started by trying to interest us, then stopped and said "oh. It's you again." (The first time we'd talked to him, it had been me, my sister, and our parents, and we'd been carrying our coats. Over an hour later, we come back just the two of us with coats on and umbrellas out, and he still recognizes us. I'm pretty sure I couldn't recognize him, or any of the actors, out of costume.) We asked if Sweeney Todd was gory, to which Basil replied "no, unfortunately, because we're on carpet." So we went on and bought tickets.

In my opinion, Sweeney Todd was not as good as The Picture of Dorian Gray. That almost certainly had more to do with my preference for the story of Dorian Gray. I found the play kind of hard to follow, which was either because I hadn't read the book, (I had prepared by reading the Wikipedia article on Sweeney Todd, which helped a little. Not as effective as reading the book, though.) or because it was told in non-chronological order. Probably the second reason, actually. (Though I do imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray would have been hard to follow if you had no familiarity with the book. Unless you caught the line in the first song about the fateful day he sold his soul away to remain young.)

When we'd talked with the producer after The Picture of Dorian Gray, she mentioned that Sweeney Todd had more audience interaction. I'm not sure I agree. The interactions were longer in Sweeney Todd, but unless you were one of the people to be swept into a dance or dragged along to Mrs. Lovett's, it didn't particularly matter. (One of the women, dressed in leopard print clothing, looked super-unhappy to be on stage. However, Reverend Oakley's comment as they went on stage ["I found a leopard!"] was almost enough to redeem her attitude.

Sweeney Todd had the same cast as The Picture of Dorian Gray. The females varied, where Mrs. Lovett and Joanna Oakley had only minor (or no) lines, and Sybil, her mother, and her aunt didn't talk much in Sweeney Todd. The one exception was Ermintrude and Griselda, who appeared in both. There were only 4 male actors, though, so there was much more overlap there. Dorian-actor appeared as a young man going in for a shave and is subsequently murdered. It was really hard to get the idea that he wasn't Dorian Gray out of my head. Sweeney Todd was played by Harry-actor, and didn't have problem. He was talented in both performances. Finally, Basil was Markus and the butler/time passes announcer was Reverend Oakley.

Victorian Vices Cast

I didn't like the music as much as I liked the music in The Picture of Dorian Gray. This might have been another side effect of me liking the story less. There was nothing wrong with the music, it was just a little too upbeat. Call me crazy, but I prefer a dark and brooding song about beauty and goodness to a light and chipper song about cannibalism.

My favorite moment of the play was the last song. Lovett and Sweeney Todd are dead, and then they get up and stand together against a wall. And the rest of the cast starts gathering us around them. Not to the door. And they're singing, angrily and viciously against Lovett and Sweeney. ("Lies, so many lies," in a play on their earlier song "pies, so many pies.") And, with the voices in and around us, it feels a bit like we were caught in a mob.

Oh! And we were actually allowed to clap for the actors this time.

After the show, we somehow had enough of an appetite to stop and get dessert. That and tea made for a nice break between shows. A long break too. (Unlike the Victorian Vices people who, when Sweeney Todd ends at 7:20, need to start preparing for The Picture of Dorian Gray at 8:00. At least they're roughly in costume, and have had a whole show to warm up. They're also the only ones in that room, which must make the set easy.) (Also unlike the group we were about to see.)

The Dolls of New Albion: A Steampunk Opera was the show we were going to see. We'd passed them in the street many times. They were distinctive because they were dressed steampunk and would mostly freeze, except for one man who would walk around them handing out fliers and clapping. Each time he clapped, they would move. I tried at one point, but because I fail at clapping, all I got was one person to flinch. When I talked my father into it a few days later, he got everyone except the woman staring at him to move.

As we were eating dinner, they were scheduled to appear on the stage outside of our apartment. Once we finsihed eating, my sister and I quietly (not actually. There were rather loud and obstrusive cries of "where are my shoes?") skipped out of dishes to go watch them. This time they were actually singing and dancing, not just standing motionless. Hoping this would be a better indication of what the show was like, we decided to go.

The narrator was a bit too soft, which made it hard to follow the overall storyline. Other complicating factors were characters like the red-haired dwarf and a brilliant mouse named Sam, who appeared in the narration but not in the play itself. (They did appear in the extensive linked short stories I found several days after the fact.)

Even though I needed to listen to the music several times to understand the connection all of the characters had, I'm still very glad we saw it in theater. It made some aspects clearer, and some of the actors could really dance.

The dancers from the Dolls of New Albion

Their movements while narrative, plot-enhancing music was happening kept things interesting.

The costumes were much less steampunk than their street outfits were. I would have been OK with this if they'd worn their math-formulae-decorated lab coats for more than a fraction of a scene. As was, the outfits could have been way more steampunk.

Overall, though, it was good. It was a multigenerational epic (four generations) which could be challenging for a small cast to convey, but they did a pretty good job. I just wish I could have heard the narrator better.

Tags: fringe, shakespeare, steampunk, victorian vices

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