The Edinburgh International Festival, now 50 years old, is the granddaddy of such events, host to the world's most established music, dance and theater companies. The independently administered Festival Fringe runs simultaneously, as do a Book Festival and the Tattoo, a Scottish military parade with fireworks held nightly at the castle. One of the results is a throng of pedestrians any weekday afternoon along Princes Street, a tightly packed human mass recalling images of Calcutta. When it's not raining, the Guinness Brewery gives away tiny plastic cups of its brew at the Old Town outdoor cafes, as tourists check their schedules and maps to decide which sketch-comedy troupe up from London to check out, while a Rastafarian street drummer pounds out an accompaniment to a student company shuffling their fliers onto tables.
You can find schedules for all the concurrent festivals on almost every street corner. On a Monday, starting at 10:30 a.m., I saw five plays in one day – four of them horrible. (For this, I could have stayed home.) While I was sitting on a bench, recovering after my third play – and sixth shot of stout – a perky woman with three kids sat next to me. She was “on holiday,” a three-day escape. She'd already blown her 500-pound budget on hotel, theater tickets, and fish-and-chips dinners, and still had a day to go. Her husband in Guilford was wiring her another 100 pounds. If Edinburgh's tourist board had overheard, they'd surely have been high-fiving each other.
I was in Scotland for only a few days, not enough to enjoy the entire flavor of the festival, but enough to catch an English-subtitled German-language version of Die Ahnlichen (Look-alikes), the Vienna Theater in der Josefstadt's production of the latest work by veteran German playwright Botho Strauss, directed by Peter Stein, as well as a remarkable interpretation by Spanish director Calixto Bieito, for the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, of Pedro Calderon's Spanish Golden Age classic Life Is a Dream, in a beautiful English translation by John Clifford. Both of these productions represented a kind of visually kinetic theater of symbols that has all but disappeared from our local scene since the evaporation of Bill Bushnell's Los Angeles Theater Center and its resident artists from Norway, director Stein Winge and designer Timian Alsaker.
Neither production was terribly innovative. Die Ahnlichen was billed as a “morality play” and was structured as a series of sketches, or “interludes” – some of them separated by the accompaniment of a saxophone, played live – involving characters, some of whom reappeared in subsequent skits. In the first, three women (Jutta Lampe, Mirjam Ploteny and Dorte Lyssewki), all dressed in lingerie, sat with rigid angularity on a white throw-covered bed-cot – one on either side, one on the front. They were, presumably, in a hotel room, or so the early-Pinter-esque dialogue suggested; the walls of Ferdinand Wogerbauer's set consisted of white, fluorescent cubes, so that the scenes bounced with glaring light. The entire play, in fact, was visually striking, akin to a series of snapshots taken at close range and illuminated by a huge flashbulb.
This first “interlude” was divided into segments, separated by a harsh electronic buzz. In one segment, against the backdrop of street sounds, the women, strikingly similar in appearance, argued about opening the window as each slowly and erotically dressed – sliding on stockings, clipping garter belts – until they were all in business suits. In a later segment, after the arrival of a fellow named Rudiger (Robert Hunger-Buhler) – the devil – the lights slipped into hues of red as the women, complaining about the heat, undressed again just as slowly, in gestures that had a choreographed, surgical precision, while conversing with catty, grim wit.
Another interlude found two brothers (August Zirner and Herbert Fottinger) and their wives (Lampe and Ploteny) – one couple from West Germany, the other from the East – slipping into bed with each other after the men had bickered over their respective legacies. The men also quarreled over a prostitute (Lussewski), who, throughout the scene, was bent over a window, her black miniskirt riding up her thighs. (Occasionally, she looked over her shoulder, into the action, with a quizzical glance.) The East German eventually left his wife to marry the prostitute; later, for his trouble, his ex-wife ripped out his heart on a camping trip. And so it went, interweaving allegories of German politics, and of global strains among finance, morals and loyalty. Stein's vision was perfectly executed, intellectually haunting – and stylistically dated, reminiscent of the “whitewashed” stages of the '80s, reflecting the sterility and moral bankruptcy of corporate life, with a brand of sexuality that felt lifted from an upscale “gentlemen's” magazine.
Bieito's approach to Life Is a Dream answered Stein's harsh glare with brooding elegance and dusky tones. The essence of the story concerns diabolically sadistic Prince Segismundo (George Anton, a skeletal, shaved-headed Scot) – a near cousin to Richard III – imprisoned by his father, King Basilio (Jeffrey Kisoon), who fears an astrological prediction that the boy will usurp him. Still, the king sets the prince free, after drugging him with a potion that makes him unable to distinguish whether he is dreaming. After viewing the young man's malevolent abuses of power, the king returns him to the tower, goading him with statements about how his authority was never “real” – but the prince has inspired a revolutionary sect, who liberate him. Utterly bewildered as to whether he is sleeping, the prince ironically emerges as a wise and compassionate monarch.
The play was staged in a gravel pit, where space reached back into a dark mist. The prince's entrance involved sliding down into the pit and pelting the first row with little pebbles. A red-nosed harlequin (Sylvester McCoy) offset the overall grimness, in one scene literally stepping across the shoulders of the audience to approach the stage. As in Shakespeare, the richness of Calderon's passion comes from his poetry, Clifford's translation of which was fervently delivered by a masterful company, while occasionally soliloquies were juxtaposed with Basque-style percussion from an onstage drummer.
In these productions, the stories were layered in – rather than spoon-fed – amid startling images and assured stylizations. As opposed to more commercial works, allegory was as vital to their integrity as plot. The directors seemed either self-confident or arrogant, depending on how much their work impressed or annoyed.
Whatever the case, L.A. audiences shouldn't have to travel to Edinburgh to find such plays. There's really no excuse for a city as massive and cosmopolitan as Los Angeles not to have an international theater or arts festival. Even a biannual event would be better than our present year-round equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (where anyone who can cough up the funds can rent a venue), mingled with a handful of enterprising troupes and commercial booking houses. We get Laurie Anderson on tour and the best musicals in the world, but we seem to have our own curious “Peter principle,” whereby non- or even anti-commercial stage directors like Peter Stein, Peter Brook and Peter Sellars stay away. (And Sellars lives here.)
The dinkiest towns in the outbacks of Poland have an international festival, bringing together an array of theatrical temperaments. (Such places, by the way – places in which the economies are far less robust than ours – share our enthusiasm for American-style commerical theater; they simply throw their net wider.) Sponsors include local businesses and multinational corporations. Audiences flock in to experience an injection of arts fare from all over the world. Everyone wins.
On my five-play Edinburgh marathon, I walked to every venue – and that's perhaps the most significant difference between Edinburgh and L.A. You can traverse the width of Edinburgh on foot in about 45 minutes, whereas if you were to walk 45 minutes from the Santa Monica Pier toward downtown L.A., you still wouldn't have left Santa Monica. Still, that's not an insurmountable obstacle: We have buses and other shuttles that seem to work just fine for places like the Getty Museum and the Hollywood Bowl.
Money isn't the obstacle here, management is. After the triumph of our 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, Sellars so botched the coordination of a similar effort in 1987 – reputedly spending more time directing operas in Europe than holding down the fort at home – that the consequent aversion on the part of sponsors to the mere mention of the word festival has kept world theater away from Los Angeles for more than a decade. It's really time to get over it – and get on with it.