Friday, August 25, 2006

State of the Arts

The "New York Times" (can't find this online yet) reports on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a massive and wildly uneven three-week festival of performance held each year in Scotland. The scary anti-Semitic component of many performances already has been remarked upon by people not usually scared by such things.

Less surprisingly, the "righteous anger" that NYT's reviewer finds to be the mood and tone of the festival, has Americans and American culture and American religion and American policies as its targets.

But humor aside, the vein that runs through the festival this year is anger: anger at the state of the world in general, and anger at America in particular. Comedians need only display a picture of President Bush to provoke hollow laughter or indignant booing, depending on the context.

One play that has been much admired by audiences is Simon Levy's "What I Heard About Iraq," a stark recitation of actual quotations — some fatuous, some incomprehensible, some terribly sad — from the instigators of and participants in the Iraq war. The play is less a drama than an indictment, an exercise in controlled outrage, and the performers are preaching to the converted. The audiences' anger flashes back through its applause at the end.

Religion and its excesses are another obsession. In one show, the Wisconsin comedian Ryan Paulson describes his strange childhood as a born-again Pentecostal, his religion's emphasis on speaking in tongues forever colliding with his town's keep-to-yourself Scandinavian reticence.

Another show uses man-on-the-street interviews and audience participation to plumb the West's ignorance of Islam. In "According to Jesus," the dark-skinned British comic Jason Kavan, in the guise of Jesus, turns water into wine and then says, "The real miracle was getting hold of these chemicals, looking like this."

And in "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years," another popular attack on the American administration, the comedian Abie Bowman imagines Jesus as a comedian, sent back to earth by "my dad" to try to sort out the world's chaos. But when he arrives at U.S. immigration and describes himself as an unmarried Palestinian fundamentalist with no fixed address who came from a cave in Lebanon, he is sent to Guantanamo Bay and issued an orange jumpsuit, Bowman's costume for the show (along with a modest crown of thorns).

"Welcome to the land of the free," Bowman says. "Conditions apply."

It gets worse. You'll just have to find a print copy.

No mention of any plays or comedy skits about terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, Iran's freakish megalomaniac president, Saddam's prisons, or mocking Muhammad. I guess the reviewer just didn't get to those venues.

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