Great Scot! Out on the fringe of the Fringe


Bloody all heck: So it’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival season again, is it? On High Street in Old Town.

Brooklyn, Schmooklyn.

Sure, the Other NYC has Pok Pok and food carts and shoebox galleries and bike zealots and even, starting next season, an NBA basketball franchise with an absentee billionaire owner.

But any day in August, the best bet for a Portland urban doppelganger may well be Edinburgh, Scotland, home of not just one of Europe’s preeminent arts festivals (the aptly named Edinburgh International Festival) but also of the baby that ate the daddy, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Think of the “official” Festival as Apollo: the art museum and opera and symphony and ballet, with a couple of high-roller galleries thrown in. Think of the Fringe as Dionysus: all that oozy, messy, in-your-face stuff that often feels like the reinvention of the wheel but sometimes is well and truly the enthralling shock of the new.

Plus, Edinburgh has perpetually cloudy skies with enough humidity to get you sweaty when the temperature’s in the 60s. When the sun’s out you feel like scrubbing the stone on all those old thick buildings. When the drizzle inevitably returns the city settles back into its normal coloring: wet gray and brown, with dabs of green from the copper roofs and brighter colors from the painted doorways. It’s a city that huddles on its hill, but it has an undeniable roughcut charm, and even, in its gardens and closes and winding stairwells and staggered ruins, a stubborn beauty. Portland East? Spot ’em a few centuries worth of buildings and a pretty fancy castle and you’d have to say: kissin’ cousins, at the least.

Come see this show! Along the Royal Mile.

If anything goes at the Fringe, where pretty much anybody with the drive and the cash to nail down a venue is welcome, anything really goes along the cobblestones of High Street and environs, an exotic mob scene that almost seems like the Fringe of the Fringe.

High Street is the Grand Central Station of the Old Town tourist trade (it’s right up the hill from Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s sprawling main railway terminus), a cheeky international tattoo on the rump of an outwardly traditional town. In August the air takes on an energetic cacophony of languages as visitors from Brazil, Portugal, France, Japan, India, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada, plus the likes of Leeds and Leicester and London, crowd the hostels, pubs, and makeshift performance spots. One such space, a stolid old stone building with a clock tower called Tron Church, sports a vibrant banner advertising free nightly burlesque performances. It fits right in.

The street scene during high Festival season is a highly compressed amalgam of Portland’s Last Thursday jimmyjam on Alberta Street, food pods, Saturday market (one tent-booth is selling handmade kilts for toddlers, plus tartan-plaid baby boxer shorts), the Fertile Ground and JAW new-works festivals, buskers performing everything from magic tricks to rockabilly guitar, and bemused tourists wandering through it all, snapping photos and breaking for beers or espressos at any of the dozens of sidewalk cafes lining Old Town’s “Royal Mile.”

And unlike Portland, where the city periodically gets its knickers in a twist over the rowdiness of Last Thursday, Edinburgh cops mix and mingle patiently with the crowds and performers during Fringe season, helpfully offering information and directions. The Scottish capital has obviously seen the economic advantages of the Fringe season and is willing to put up with a little excess in order to rake in a lot of tourism dough. (In fairness, as obnoxious as Fringe crowds can get, they’re not peeing in people’s front yards, as has been known to happen on Alberta: The Fringe is in a commercial district, not a residential one.)

Here in the streets you can see a grizzled old guy with the vacant look of incapacity wearing a sign slapped on his back that reads “EXPERIENCE DEMENTIA.” Actor pretending? Mentally diminished man, being “displayed” by hipster performance-art dudes? Real actor who’s really slipped into dementia? Who knows? In the theater of the Fringe of the Fringe, what’s real and what’s fake are tough to pull apart.

The Fringe is looking for a few good men.

Vampires, ghouls, pirates and cowboys roam the cobblestones. Punked-out Alices in Wonderland pass silently as costumed performers collar visitors with flyers and friendly pitches for their shows, “playing in just 10 minutes, right around the corner. It’s free, and it’s very very funny. You’ll love it!” On the sidewalk in front of a bank building, a friendly fellow wearing a velour robe hands out a card for his show Built for Two, a four-hander that takes place in the bathroom of a small flat and apparently involves adultish frolicking. A few paces away a woman draped in nothing but a bath towel (fittingly, a light shower is falling) offers the same flyer for the same show. “Your towel looks better than his robe,” a passerby tells her, and she breaks out laughing.

The Fringe is a free-for-all, with a catalog as thick as a small city’s phone book, and its quality depends entirely on which number you ring up. Comedy’s huge on the Fringe, ranging from well-known stars like Greg Proops trying out new material, to rank beginners, to regional stalwarts ready to showcase their acts on a bigger stage. Sex, songs, and dirty words play big roles on the comedy stages, usually delivered with a friendly brashness that can seem startlingly the same in its quest to stand out from the crowd. Show titles play the role of carnival barkers, luring the curious in. Andrew O’Neill & Marc Burrows Do Music & Comedy & Hideous Murder, in a downstairs-bar venue called Canon’s Gait (think of a perambulating churchman), pretty much delivers on all counts, although the murders are only recounted in songs, which are delivered with reassuring professionalism and profanity-laced steampunk glee.

A lot of performers, especially in dance and theater, seem to be college students getting a taste of the bigger world, and performers who aren’t onstage at the moment also make up a good-sized chunk of a lot of audiences. Dance tends to run from traditional contemporary to oddly exhibitionist, as in the case of a peculiar ménage a trios of peacock and peahens that had dropped in from somewhere in California.

Like Portland, Edinburgh (and its faster-paced nearby sibling, Glasgow) is the urban center for a large, rich, and far more rural region, and the cities’ international urbanity is overlaid on the regions’ cautious, pragmatic, sturdy stock. A quick trip out of town to the Galloway hills of the southwest Lowlands, through such villages as Castle Douglas, Gatehouse of Fleet, Wigtown (Scotland’s official national book town, its curving streets are lined with book shops) and the tiny fishing and distillery village of Bladnoch emphasized the parallels between Scotland and Oregon. This stretch of farmland and coastline is visually lovely – beautiful rolling green countryside, locals who are ruddy and open and seem uniformly thrilled to be visited by anyone from anywhere, fine old vernacular buildings and houses, rivers, bridges, and bracing country air. Some places go back as far as the late 17th century, but most date from the late 18th to late 19th century, and are correspondingly settled in.

 The fish were jumping, and the weather, much to the locals’ surprise, was decent. “Been an awful summer, it has,” they’d say. “Nothin’ but rain rain rain. Well then, maybe this’ll last, you think?” Or: “Sunny last week. Three whole days. It were a heck of a summer!” ­– and then that little rueful in-joke laugh, because you both know that in spite of the miserable weather they’d never dream of living anywhere else. Made me feel right at home, it did, even though shortly before I left Portland the temperature had hit 102, a shock wave that surely never happens in the western Lowlands.

Back on High Street, the party goes on. It’s a young crowd, mostly. With its hills and wends and stairs and closes, Edinburgh attracts a hearty sort of traveler. You could wrap the enthusiasm around your shoulders and wear it like a shawl: for all its crudity and eagerness to offend, the Fringe is sweetly eager to please. Yes, wheels are getting reinvented. One excited young woman is urging passersby to experience the pleasure of the brilliant playwright her company’s recently discovered, a bracing young chap named Joe Orton.

And playfulness is at work. Another young company is offering a “Much Ado About Nothing” stripped down to about an hour and performed in 1920s costume.

Do I detect a doppelganger?

At the Fringe, sometimes lying down on the job IS the job.


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