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Kennedy Center stages 'On the Fringe: Eye on Edinburgh'

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 11:25 AM

Thanks to the Capital Fringe Festival, many Washingtonians are well versed in that basic dogma of fringe theater: Rules are for suckers.

Forget playbills, intermissions and dramas played out in two acts. Fringe festivals have become the mothership for oddball comedies, musical misfires and a hundred other category-defying sorts of shows. And the mother of them all is Scotland's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Beginning this week, Washingtonians can get to know the more than 60-year-old original fringe - the model not only for Capital Fringe, but for festivals in New York, Philadelphia, Orlando and around the world - without so much as collecting a stamp on their passports. Some of Edinburgh's juiciest offerings of recent years are making their way to the Kennedy Center for "On the Fringe: Eye on Edinburgh," a three-week mini-festival that will bring five feature performances from Scotland, a handful of free events and panel discussions on such subjects as arts criticism and entrepreneurship.

"It's not exactly a fringe event in that it's curated," says Alicia Adams, who, as the center's vice president of international programming and dance, selected the shows local audiences will see. "But I've been going to Edinburgh for the past eight years . . . to go and look and see, with the hope of presenting work here."

If the festival seems edgy by Kennedy Center standards, it is: "On the Fringe" is part of the center's series dedicated to bringing cutting-edge works to Washington. At Edinburgh, Adams explains, "many young artists, many emerging artists, many entrepreneurial artists have a chance to explore in the glare of the press, and that's very important to developing new work."

Edinburgh's fringe is "such a big broad festival, that thousands of things happen within that month," says playwright Mark Ravenhill, whose show "A Life in Three Acts" is among the offerings landing at the Kennedy Center this week. "It's really just the sheer numbers of stuff that goes on at Edinburgh that makes it incredible."

"On the Fringe" may not be nearly as large, but it will certainly be as eclectic. Oxford Playhouse's family-friendly "One Small Step" uses household objects, cardboard boxes and childlike imagination to explore the international race to space travel in the '50s and '60s. Playwright David Leddy's "Susurrus" is best described as a one-on-one experience, requiring "audience members" to don headphones and listen as they walk around the Kennedy Center (first presented abroad, it has been re-envisioned for its new venue). And for the performance piece "Of All the People in All the World" by Stan's Cafe Theatre Company, millions of grains of rice - one for each person in the United States - will be dropped in the Hall of States and Hall of Nations, where performers will count out the grains to reflect such statistics as the number of people in Washington and the number of people in Congress.

The Kennedy Center festival will even tip its hat to Capital Fringe, bringing in one of the summer's successful shows, "Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite," for a free performance on the Millennium Stage.

First, however, the show to see is "A Life in Three Acts," which was featured at Edinburgh in 2009 and took home its Fringe First award for new writing. The production was born as a real conversation between British performer Bette Bourne and playwright and journalist Ravenhill, and delves into Bourne's life as a performer and gay icon (he was born Peter Bourne).

The lure of "A Life in Three Acts" is that it is more than the story of just one gay man, Ravenhill says. "The thing about Bette is he is a very strong individual, and many experiences are very uniquely his own. But he's . . . part of the gay liberation movement. He set up a drag commune, he set up a drag theater company, Bloolips - so you do get a sense he's part of a bigger story as well."

That sort of broad appeal is exactly what Adams says will play to Washington audiences. "I picked shows that I thought were unique, that certainly were representative of fringe," she says. "It's not the raciest or the edgiest, but it's certainly some of the best."

On the Fringe: Eye on Edinburgh Through Nov. 13 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org/fringe. Free-$25.

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