This is the official Prague Post round-up of the shows performed at the Prague Fringe Festival.
Running June 1–9, the festival showcases more than 50 pieces from around the world, performed in English or, if not, always accessible to English-speaking audiences.
Below, you will find short reviews of a selection of productions. The page will be updated on a regular basis to reflect the changing wave of talent and range of topics covered by performers both amateur and professional.
For an overview of the festival itself, click here.
For a full program of the festival, see the organizers’ website by clicking here.
June 1 — Déjà vu; D.O.A.: Department of the Afterlife; The Troubadour’s Tale
A production that uses the most banal concepts, Spain and oranges, and somehow makes them eternally memorable. Everything seems to involve these two words that resurface in conversations and in actions. Oranges appear when suitcases are opened, a woman is constantly squeezing them, a man wakes up with orange peel in his mouth, and a mysterious Spanish woman who might be either the wife or the lover of the main character flits in and out of the kitchen. It is a strange piece that becomes stranger and clearer as time passes, and gradually we realize how all these scenes are connected. The explanation is not belabored because it comes across at exactly the right moment, as opposed to an early scene where much is made of the “real” vs “unreal” natures of experience.
Australian Stuart Mentha is very effective as our central guide, the only character who seems to connect the two universes in which he is married ot two different women, and though his very first action is that of waking up to find himself wearing socks of different colors, it is only much later that we realize what an appropriate piece of costume design that was.
Though the actors are all worthy of great praise, it is actress Šárka Vaculíková who is outstanding, even in a cast where everyone has cracking lines. The text is playful and full of references to oranges and Spain (or, in an unexpected moment, Gibraltar) that make this is wonderful piece of work even though we often don’t quite know what to make of this dreamlike reality very unsubtly reflected by the Dali painting in the background.
2. D.O.A.: Department of the Afterlife
As everyone knows, D.O.A. actually means “dead on arrival,” and this double meaning is reproduced in many other situations in this production. In fact, at one point a character, playing off the audience’s continuous enjoyment at noticing such word play, exclaims: “Oh my, there are double entendres everywhere!” After all, at that point we had just met a secret agent named Honey Lingus who is chatting up a James Bond look-alike in a bar called Le Rendezvous where he boasts about being a cunning linguist. I mean, come on!
Most of the film is actually set in a Kafkaesque environment upstairs in the clouds where bureaucracy dictates every step of the pre-heaven or pre-hell period, depending on your personal religious affiliation and the report on how your life stacks up against your proclaimed moral code. Director Stan Hodgson and Josef Davies, who play multiple characters, are both fantastic, tapping a sensitivity and dumbfoundedness that are usually quite difficult to convey without the act seeming contrived. Here, they both shine in their respective capacities, and the effect is dynamite, especially in the short moments when they share the stage.
While there are truly wondrous moments on stage early on, great parodies of everything relating to documents, the play unfortunately goes off the rails toward the end by allegedly making us think about the complexity of human behavior when in fact everyone realizes the laughter has all but evaporated. When the play is flippant and parodic, it is a joy, but its efforts to be more serious are questionable and will make the audience feel uncomfortable when that is totally out of sync with the rest of the production.
3. The Troubadour’s Tale
Pete Buffery delivers guitar and vocal accompaniment to a 30-minute series of animated scenes that he made himself, based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. His intentions are pure and his heart was clearly in it, but the performance doesn’t evoke much emotion or interest.
On a small stage in Malostranská beseda (galerie), the animated film is projected onto the screen behind him while he stands in the corner, next to the side curtain, and plays his many songs on the guitar while singing into the microphone in front of him. But the spotlight illuminating him also takes out half the screen and makes for a very brightly lit performance that has very little atmosphere. The fact he doesn’t use the space he has is frustratingly static.
The animation has interesting parts, for example most of the characters have the same faces but have different hairstyles or costumes for us to distinguish them from each other. However, in my opinion the characters were the least interesting part of the story. What took my breath away were the animals, in particular an owl and a wolf, that showed a level of detail and beauty absent from their human counterparts and every time we had another sword fight, cute as they were, I missed the animals that clearly inspired Buffery a bit more.
June 3 — Light Up Your Life; All Fall Down; Berlin
Estonian lighting designer Johanna-Mai Vihalem and Azerbaijani native Anar Yusufov, better known as Keytarman, put a smile on my face almost the entire time they were on stage. While Vihalem is clearly the central character, or rather characters, as she channels a number of different personae, sometimes communicating with each other in a three-way dialogue, Yusufov’s timing in delivering a comical gesture here and a funny song there is pitch-perfect.
One easily forgets there are only two people on stage, as Vihalem delivers very credible performances as she takes on numerous characters in the world of the theater. All the action allegedly happens backstage, as the crew is preparing for an upcoming production and reveals the tension between the lighting designer, the director and the actors. An early scene in which a puppet constantly tries to emote but fails to stay in one place is wonderful to watch, as Vihalem plays not just the puppet, but also the director and the off-stage lighting designer. The dynamics of the productions are wonderful, and though one of the final scenes, in which Vihalem speaks to her hand puppet, is overlong, it is immediately mitigated by Yusufov’s rapping hand puppets that are eye-poppingly hilarious.
Hands down my favorite production so far.
2. All Fall Down
That was a day with some major technical problems, and it started with All Fall Down, a play that takes on the heavy subject of children personally affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
When the audience enters, a dozen children are already seated on stage, playing with cars and other toys, looking, well, childlike and innocent. But very quickly their expressions change when they see or hear the planes crash into the towers and their loved ones pass on. Their relationship to each other is never made clear. One scene would have us believe they are all in the same school, but that seems not quite believable.
Most of the 40 minutes are taken up by random scenes of varying intensity as the children describe how they were affected. Unfortunately, very badly executed “interviews” in video format are screened behind them from time to time, and sometimes one of them would watch himself or herself on the screen being interviewed. The purpose of this is also very unclear. All the children, with the exception of a blonde-haired boy called Rodney who has a promising theater career ahead of him, have terrible enunciation and often the background sound is so loud we can barely hear what they are saying.
But there are two significant developments. One is the all-too-brief focus on the only nonwhite character, whose father died on Sept. 11, but in a different way that the other characters’ relatives… Another is the play’s climax, which will make many audience members uncomfortable, but is so powerful it will be difficult to hold back your tears as you watch it all unfold. The rest of the production, however, is not on the same level.
Though Franz Kafka is the central character, he is present only as a specter in the very melancholic conversation that takes place in a Berlin apartment one night in 1924, where his lover Dora Diamant and his doctor Leopold Mayer are having an intense conversation while they await the arrival of Max Brod.
The Greek language is beautiful to listen to, and the actors’ dialogue-heavy performances are exemplary, but the translations appearing on the screen behind them were often out of sync, which hampered this very text-based production. In one or two brief black-and-white video sequences, the subtitles were in white, which sometimes made it difficult to read.
But overall the production has much to be commended for, especially the very somber tone with its subtle shifts in intensity and intention from time to time, underscored by the lighting changes, and the acting of two powerful leads.
June 4 — Pianodivalicious!
The show started late and after an unexpected fire alarm went off in the middle of the performance, Pianodivalicious ended up being more than 10 minutes longer than expected. As a result, I discovered to my great disappointment the distance from Malostranská beseda to Divadlo na prádle, where I was scheduled to attend a performance of the highly acclaimed Voice of Anne Frank, cannot be covered in three minutes.
Michigan-born Amy Abler plays the role of the attention-grabbing (and -demanding!) diva very well. At one point she proudly proclaims “I can see Canada from my house!” and thus had my full attention. She makes an entrance, gives everyone in the audience a big red feather and asks some very unsuspecting women whether she can tickle their “fancy”. The show is full of sexual quips that are revealed to be mere projections of our own perverted thoughts, but mostly it is about Abler.
Spanning a wide range of musical influences, she covers everything from the theme song to The Sting to Pachelbel’s Canon to the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen,” and while recounting some experiences in Istanbul, she plays Mozart’s Turkish Rondo with great passion. Abler has great command of the stage, reacting to and incorporating the smallest of reactions from the audience. Even when the audience isn’t willing to participate, she manages to coax some small note of agreement or even praise from them.
Though some of her stories don’t seem quite believable, the character she plays is enjoyable and when she focuses on her piano playing, she produces some wonderfully dynamic moments to the audience’s obvious delight.
June 4 — Shakespeare’s Kings and Clowns; Venus and Adonis
Somewhere between a university lecture and a performance piece lies Michael McEvoy’s theater production, Shakespeare’s Kings and Clowns. He obviously has a treasure trove of knowledge and guides the audience effortlessly between characters in a whole host of Shakespeare’s productions, from the more well-known Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear to Henry the IV, Part I and Part II, and even does his best to highlight the Bard’s scathing indictment of the title character in Henry VI.
The joy of the production obviously stems from McEvoy’s loose comparison of kings and clowns, underscoring the lunacy of wanting to become king and the more philosophical nature of many a Shakespeare clown. Throughout the one-hour performance, he changes his outfits to properly depict the particular character and once even dresses up as a maid, an act both historically accurate (as female characters at the time were played by male actors) and totally hilarious. He also has great command of language, never stumbling over his words and conveying a great sense of humor that often verges on bathetic. Discussing the serious matter of Hamlet learning that his own uncle Claudius had killed his father, McEvoy turns to the audience and asks us rhetorically, “And how does he discover this? Oh, easy, the ghost of his father told him!”
While reciting lines from many Shakespeare plays, McEvoy never loses his audience because the different speeches are tied together very well, despite an ever-increasing list of clowns that are paraded on stage in the play’s final 15 minutes. Many of the speeches are also punctuated by McEvoy’s own words, thereby offering us a point of re-entry into the conversation if we ever got lost. All in all, a very well conceived and executed piece of work that deserves to be seen by both Shakespeare enthusiasts and laymen.
2. Venus and Adonis
The Shakespeare Orange County production of the Shakespeare poem Venus and Adonis is a different matter altogether. Staged with very few props, there is no point of entry, only full immersion. After all, it is not a discussion but a direct execution of the source material, and Shakespeareans will most likely take great pleasure in seeing the production.
The actors playing Venus and Adonis are not exactly the kind of traditional representatives of mythical beauty we have in mind when thinking of them, but the characters, as well as the three, sometimes four, characters with whom they share the stage all have enormous presence, enunciating every syllable with fiery passion that sets the stage alight. And that fiery passion extends to Venus’ rather forceful handling of young Adonis’ private parts, a recurring theme action that is sure to generate more than a giggle from the audience.
The two main characters’ dialogue is often complemented by two red ribbon–wielding girls who comment on the action or interrupt them by quickly adding a “quoth he” or a “quoth she” in between words. It is an addition that highlights the textual origins of the production and might even support the legendary aspect of the story, and yet it does not diminish the punch of the play. The Iraq War also features in the production by means of back projection and an American flag being folded into a triangle, but though the meaning is palpable, the relevance is not entirely clear, save Adonis’ professed love to hunt.
The play is a nonstop barrage of Shakespearean force and those who have little knowledge of the Bard and his language would be better off going to watch Shakespeare’s Clowns and Kings. However, for those already familiar with this story, it is an interesting though very bare-bones production performed by actors whose skills cannot be overstated.
June 6 — Le Foulard; Immigrant Song
Lucy Hopkins channels the Holy Trinity, a highfalutin’ version of herself being God and two other equally bizarre characters complementing her while also being her, kind of.
I always feel a bit cheated when an artist constructs a text that seems immune to criticism because it is playing off its own ridiculousness and thereby provokes a knowing smile (or, in this case, many many moments of laughter) from those in the audience. Le Foulard (a kind of scarf) is a finely connected mixture of impressions and facial expressions that is genuinely funny, despite its very whimsical content.
Besides the constant contortions in which Hopkins engages her facial muscles, mostly to smile like a lunatic, she also switches from one character to the other by means of the titular scarf, which acts as a transitional device and proves how fluidly the personae are connected. The main character, who admits it would not be inappropriate to compare her to God, is a self-consciously self-important artist who is in control of the performance, though her behavior is as clearly a parody as anything else on stage. Exaggeration is the name of the game and Hopkins gets the mannerisms just right before she goes a little overboard to go for that second more of uncomfortable laughter. She also has the most ear-splitting “Ha!” this side of Chris Matthews.
Certainly worth 50 minutes of your time, though afterward you will struggle to remember what it was all about.
2. Immigrant Song
What I remember most about this production is the Kusturica (or is it just Kusturica-inspired?) music. And the two men lazily ending every second sentence with the word “man.” The tale of two Kosovar brothers who have moved to London in search of a better life (the program notes that the action takes place in 1996, though this cannot be gathered from the play itself) plays out in small scenes of confrontation, adaptation and sad recollection.
George Xander and Zad Santospirito play the older and younger brothers, respectively. In flashback, which occurs while the audience enters the theater, the older brother is sketching his girlfriend Mirella, who is posing for him. Mirella will serve as the connecting thread between the various episodes and a source of tension during the production as the older brother is waiting for her to join him while his younger brother avoids telling his brother what news he has had of her. The narrative isn’t very transparent about the details, unfortunately.
While there are many impressive moments of conflict between the two brothers, who haven’t seen each other in a long time and now have to adapt again to each other in the small London apartment, the production has one incredible distraction in the form of the Mirella character. It is understandable that she is in the characters’ memories, always in the background, but her physical presence on stage throughout the entire performance diverts our attention too easily and too often, making the intimacy of the brothers’ problems less engrossing.
One flashback stands tall above the rest and it involves a drinking game between the older brother and Mirella. While the production pretends to be multi-layered in format, this scene is the only one that is truly successful, as it welds the growing bond in the couple’s physical and intellectual knowledge of each other with the melancholy that is our realization this is past rather than present tense. The rest of the production, however, doesn’t quite reach that bar.
June 8 — Nuclear Love Affair
There was something incredibly sexy yet heartbreaking about the Cold War, and Nuclear Love Affair does its best to keep us entertained while recreating this tension of sexuality and political oppression, of love and war.
Now, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. It is more than pleasant to watch an hour-long performance which has only good-looking people on stage. I am not a fan of drag, but even the Marilyn Monroe bits, done by a guy in drag, were entertaining because the imitation is done so well.
The story is a mish-mash of incidents and atmosphere spanning from the dropping of he atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the post-war era to the Vietnam War. Given this grim reality, the playwright nonetheless provides some very intelligent food for thought in the form of Chaplin, who is magnificently imitated — one could even use the word “channeled,” for his movements take considerable skill and dedication that have paid off big-time — by the young Vincent Santvoord.
While “I Love Lucy” and the laugh track are imaginatively used to highlight the deceptively comical feel-good atmosphere of the 1950s, made a little naughty by Marilyn Monroe, the Vietnam War is also a constant theme throughout the play, which rather undermines the title. Nonetheless, the action is staged with explosive energy (for example, a scene in which an FBI agent arrives to arrest Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) and has some of the most sophisticated transitions seen in any production during this Fringe Festival: Shortly after Monroe performs “Happy Birthday, Mr President” to Santvoord’s JFK, whose Boston accent he also imitates perfectly, an umbrella is twirled to obscure both their faces as they walk offstage and this twirling umbrella is suddenly complemented by the sound of a helicopter’s turning rotors, which immediately recalls Vietnam.
It is a perfect transition and one that raises the play to a level of sophistication I have not seen anywhere else during this festival. Another brilliantly devised routine involves the sexual assault of Cuba, alternated between the USA and the USSR.
This play is spectacular. Though a final rendition of Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” borders on excruciating, the general feeling is one of awe that this play has taken key moments not of history but of the feeling of the time, and gently problematized them to produce a great piece of entertainment that is well acted and wonderfully executed. And there’s nothing wrong with having such a handsome cast.
2. How to Climb Mount Everest
This is actually a piece of physical theater. With no small amount of miming, supported by ludicrous but charmingly so sound effects such as “psssssshhhtt” and “pffffffftttt,” this play is silly but wonderfully entertaining.
In the opening scene, which at first seems completely separate to the rest of the play, one man comes out on stage and introduces the production by apologizing for his colleague’s absence. Moments later, said colleague appears on stage having, according to him, just made the same journey through the sewers as Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, and asks that the audience try to ignore the stench. Shortly afterward, a 60-second sketch that takes us, by means of no props except a chair, from conception to death in gloriously minimalist though confidently coherent fashion.
There is a very comprehensible story, one of the few in this festival, that follows the one character from the day he is fired and he flees from his landlord to Mount Everest where he trains with supertrainer and superfake home-shopping star Aldo to try and regain control of his life. The ending is ambiguous, but the constant back and forth of small in-jokes between the actors is wonderful, as are the moments in which inanimate objects are brought to life by actor Nusret Ozguc.
The other actor, Sam Gibbs, has one of the friendliest faces I have ever seen, his eyes constantly alive and inquisitive, even after the performance, and together the actors make the most charming duo of any play this year. Unfortunately, they pretend (only sometimes) to be French and end up producing guttural sounds that fuse Batman’s bass with French twists and ends up sounding rather ridiculous. But half the time Gibbs reverts back to his native British English, a result, perhaps, of the actors’ own open admission that this is a play: At significant moments in the production they break character to praise the production and the story developments. Such meta-moments are nice but slightly jarring as they are not used more calculatedly.
Gibbs and Ozguc work extremely well together on stage and it is a great pleasure to watch their play, as they use the minimum amount of props (in fact, they mostly use their own bodies) to get the maximum effect.
June 9 — When Abel Met Cain; Vanya
At the outset, one of the two musicians on stage tells the audience this story is an effort to bridge the conflicts and different ideas of the region, in other words Palestine and Israel. That is very ambitious and they almost immediately forget about this pledge, which is just as well, because such heavy politics, interesting as it may be, don’t make for easy 1-hour theater. Instead, what we get is a very smooth presentation of soothing music, solid storytelling and beautiful bursts of interaction between the two musicians that make for a memorable show.
The two young guys on stage are Raphael Rodan, who is the storyteller and sometimes uses a guitar or a frame drum, and Anastasis Sarakatsanos, who plays a wonderful instrument called the Kanun and often produces other explosive sounds by tapping on its frame.
While an initial story, autobiographic in nature, relates Rodan’s childhood in Galilee and his fear of eventually joining the army despite (or because of) all the talk of “medals” those around him received in conflict, like the wooden leg of an old ex-army man, the rest of the performance revolves around a mythical character named Medorado (I’m guessing at the spelling here) who goes to war and is torn apart by the violence. The relevance of the biblical Cain and Abel isn’t really made clear, but Rodan’s storytelling abilities and his skill at weaving between different parts of his story, into and around the musical numbers, makes the ride worthwhile.
I would have enjoyed more interaction between Rodan and Sarakatsanos. Though Rodan’s talent lies in his storytelling, some of the play’s best moments come when Sarakatsanos whispers something contradictory or plays along in a re-enactment of a childhood game of shoot’em up — I would have liked to see him play a bigger part in the performance. One gets the feeling these two have known each other for a long time because their timing is perfect, as is made clear in a very funny scene in which they collaborate to imitate the sound of Medorado’s walking.
The songs, which are not sung in English, could have benefited from a contextualization by a brief explanation of what they are about, and more autobiographical material would also have made the performance more touching. However, as it is, and despite the grandiose notion that they are exploring the Palestianian-Israeli conflict in much detail, the two musicians deliver an admirable performance that will keep you thinking and humming along to the beautiful sound of the frame drum and the Kanun when you leave the theater.
Vanya is bizarre. It is the kind of performance one could be touched by if one were stoned, but as misfortune would have it I was completely sober and found the performance uncomfortable if not painful. Makoto Inoue is a mime artist of note and perhaps some of his other projects have been very insightful or creative. Vanya, which is supposed to be an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, is an opaque transformation of the original material to the extent that it is essential the audience know the original before attempting to make sense of the adaptation.
Inoue uses some nifty lighting techniques but there is next to nothing that connects his very very disparate moments with each other into a flowing narrative. By means of a much more dense soundtrack than his performance, we get to see him cutting up something on a chopping block very often, frying eggs and stomping through the snow in the forest. Whatever else he does is a bit of a mystery, though he knows how to move his body in interesting ways. My favorite moments involved his heart beating, which cause his body to literally inflate and deflate in sudden impressive bursts. Him riding a horse and detaching his limbs to polish and reattach them in order to produce some kind of a bionic man were also well executed.
However, on the whole, this production was vapid as it failed to order and connect its many parts in any comprehensible way. The tree depicted by Inoue at many turns is much sturdier than the performer and it is a pity, because given a proper story I’m sure we could have been treated to something really amazing.