Neil Simpson in Leipart & Schorr's The Frog Prince
(Photo © Kevin Low)
Neil Simpson in Leipart & Schorr's The Frog Prince
(Photo © Kevin Low)
August is "festival season" in Edinburgh, Scotland. There's a film festival, a jazz festival, a book festival, "Edinburgh Mela" (featuring world music and food), and an international festival of dance and opera -- which, incidentally, provides fireworks over the Edinburgh Castle at the end of the season. This year, there will also be the launch of a Festival of Politics. And of course, there's the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

This mother of all fringe festivals has just turned 59, and the lady's still got a lot of spunk. This year's edition, which runs until August 29, features nearly 2,000 shows performing in literally hundreds of venues -- not all of which are conventional theaters. For example, Chamber Made, is performed in a hotel room; Mobile Thriller, is performed in two sports cars; Devil's Larder takes place in a Debenham's department store; and Charity Begins at Home takes alms at a local charity shop. There's even a show called On the Scent that promises to perform in your own house for £80.00. (Most shows are much less expensive, about £8.50 on average.)

The most prestigious productions at the Fringe generally perform at the Traverse Theatre. This year's picks include MY PYRAMIDS!, an Abu Ghraib "fantasia" by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson; After the End, about a survivor of a terrorist explosion; and Snuff, which tackles the War on Terror on the streets of Glasgow. If you are sensing a theme, you're right. Expect to find many plays at this year's festival responding cheekily to recent geopolitical developments, including an Al Qaeda love story, a terrorism musical, and irreverent stand-up comedy from a European Muslim. (A word to the wise: The town's main daily paper, The Scotsman, awards the best plays of the festival on Friday of every week with "Fringe Firsts," so keep an eye out for the winners and reserve tickets for them quickly.)

MY PYRAMIDS!
(Photo © John Lauener)
MY PYRAMIDS!
(Photo © John Lauener)
Many festival goers start off the day with Shakespeare for Breakfast, where they serve your daily dose of the Bard with coffee and croissants. Also quite popular are the Fringe's many international acts, including a French production of Monty Python's Flying Circus, performed with English surtitles; musician and illusionist Carl-Einar Häckner, who's been refered to as a "Swedish Mr. Bean"; Spain's acclaimed troupe Pez En Raya, which is presenting its latest surreal slapstick comedy Milk; a brashly titled act called A Shut Up Comedy from Japan; and Milan's Teatro Della Contraddizione's unique production of Christopher Marlowe's notorious The Jew of Malta, which they note was one of the most performed play of the Third Reich.

You can catch a preview of many of the Fringe shows on August 14 at the Fringe Sunday event, during which crowds of over 200,000 gather at The Meadows to view over 200 acts in 11 enclosures. This always provides an excellent opportunity for parents to sample family-friendly shows with their children, such as Children of the Sea, a performance piece by a cast of young Sri Lankans at the breathtaking Royal Botanic Garden. For other adventures in children's theater, the New Jersey-based group Singing Harp will be presenting myths and folktales from around the world, from Arabian Nights: The Three Treasures to The Frog Prince, Or Faithful Henry. Do not confuse that production with a musical version of The Frog Prince for adults, with book and lyrics by Charles Leipart and music by Eric Schorr.

After theater, stand-up comedy is the festival's biggest draw. Such celebrities as Eddie Izzard, Emma Thompson, and Robin Williams have either gotten their start or performed at the Fringe. A great deal of comedy takes place at the Smirnoff Underbelly, located under the Cowgate George IV Bridge, where Rain Pryor (Richard's daughter) will be performing her show Fried Chicken & Latkes. Jimmy Carr appears in the Comedy Gala 2005, and some writers from Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and Third Rock from the Sun come together in Bicycle Men.

A street performer at the Royal Mile
(Photo © Edinburgh Festival Fringe)
A street performer at the Royal Mile
(Photo © Edinburgh Festival Fringe)
Star hunters should be on constant alert, as previous festivals have seen the likes of Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Maggie Smith, Christian Slater, and Rowan Atkinson both on- and off-stage. This year, Aidan Quinn will be performing in a Fringe production of the death row drama, The Exonerated (which he previously performed Off-Broadway). Elton John reportedly hired Fringe solo artist Pam Ann to perform at his private party in the South of France; and actress Juliette Lewis will be performing with her new rock band "The Licks."

One of the best ways to experience the Fringe is to avoid planning at all. Just go to the Royal Mile, where many of the participating companies gather to "busk" their shows by handing out postcards, performing excerpts of the plays and, depending on your point of view, entertaining or harassing random passersby. "We have people who are on unicycles about 20 feet up in the air, playing all kinds of instruments -- mad things like that, really," says Louise Page, the Fringe's marketing manager. As an added incentive, many companies hand out discount flyers and complimentary tickets to their shows. That way, you can save your money for next year's Fringe. For more information, visit www.edfringe.com.