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Direct from Edinburgh: Theaters Are Closed, but a ‘Zoo’ Is Open

Most Augusts, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe presents thousands of live performances in the Scottish capital, saving some of its most unusual specimens for a subfestival called the Zoo. Not this August, sadly, and yet the cessation of live theater has made the teeming collection of dance, performance and physical theater available to a much wider audience online, under the rubric Zoo TV. Our critics had a look around at offerings — some new, some old, all Fringe — that ranged from unwatchable to unforgettable.

A certain Marlow journeys on an African river to find a certain Kurtz, a man shrouded in mystery. Ding, ding! This is indeed the outline of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness” — though Americans might be more familiar with Francis Ford Coppola’s gonzo film adaptation, “Apocalypse Now.”

In the Imitating the Dog company’s intellectually bracing and visually inventive inversion, Marlow (Keicha Greenidge) is a private investigator from Kinshasa who takes off to fetch Kurtz (Matt Prendergast) in Europe — an alternate-reality wasteland of destruction, death and forced-labor (or worse) camps.

The adaptor-directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks pull every trick in the meta book. Not only does the production make inspired use of projections and visual and audio filters (the five actors take turns operating the cameras), but Marlow’s quest is also interspersed with scenes in which the cast members discuss the challenges of staging “Heart of Darkness” in our day and age — a straightforward illustration has become impossible in light of post-colonial takedowns of the book by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, among others.

Step by step, we discover the rationale behind some of the staging decisions we have been watching — why Greenidge’s Marlow, for example, is now a Black female P.I., or why it’s Europe that has become a “dark continent” devoured by a “sociopathic capitalism.”

This deconstruction of the creative process is not new, but it is rarely executed in such a smart way, or as smoothly integrated into the original plot. Furthering our viewing pleasure, the direction feels simultaneously theatrical and cinematic, bolstered by a particularly effective use of Jeremy Peyton-Jones’s score: The complex framework never gets in the way of the pleasure of watching a moody thriller. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

As if purchased from a catalog of avant-garde clichés, this 96-minute performance piece from the Danish company Fix&Foxy sets out to unsettle the audience with a perplexing text and grotesque visuals. Yet it is neither the labored premise nor the naked man hanging upside down from a butcher’s hook, dripping red paint, that produces the big effects.

For too long it seems nothing will: Most of this 2018 play by the writer-director Tue Biering consists of an actor (Morten Burian) delivering a plot synopsis of “Rocky” then spinning it into dystopian fan fiction. Rocky reads “Mein Kampf,” becomes a right-wing politician, forms an independent militia and, promoting an anti-immigration platform, eventually takes power — apparently in Denmark, but let’s not dwell on that.

Only near the end does something actually shocking happen, when Cheanne Nielsen, a real-life member of the far-right Danish People’s Party, arrives onstage to defend herself against charges of racism and xenophobia that resulted from comments she made at a party conference in 2016. She does not deny her view that immigrants are ruining Denmark; rather, she challenges the audience, presumably part of the “left-wing tolerant artistic mind-set,” to question its own commitment to political diversity and free speech. A few playgoers leave the theater loudly; you can do so more quietly at home. But the question, despite its objectionable source, will linger. JESSE GREEN

Through the haze of tear gas and the noise of flashbangs, it’s hard to tell at first that this nine-minute filmed performance from Matsena Performance Theater is set right now, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus pandemic. But soon we focus on one Black man, terrified not only by the violence and death around him but also by the feeling that the rest of the world has moved on, leaving him lost and alone in his vividly rendered trauma. Whether he is really envious of those who have turned off their anxiety — envisioned as an army of swaying, wordless, copper-masked ghouls — is not resolved in this fevered and haunting work written and directed by Kel Matsena and Anthony Matsena. But it does not seem to be a compliment when the man, answering the title question, says, “I’ll take your silence as a ‘yes.’” JESSE GREEN

Silvia Gallerano sits on a high stool, her legs demurely crossed high as she addresses the audience with a hand-held microphone. Her demeanor is so matter of fact that we quickly forget Gallerano is naked.

What’s harder to cast aside is the way her character emotionally bares herself. Written and directed by Cristian Ceresoli, the solo play “La Merda” is as blunt as its title, which is pungent Italian for crap: Life is harsh, even more so for women. Especially this woman.

The narrator tries to put on a confident front but she’s fraying at the edges. She thinks that she’s too short and that her thighs are too big. She dreams of fame and recounts a sexual assault, punctuated by the flat observation “after all, I’m only 13.”

Gallerano’s highly mannered performance certainly is magnetic, whether she teeters on the brink of a breakdown or crashes into it. It is also better than the play itself, which is divided in three discursive sections and goes on and on in increasingly monotonous circles. To be fair, it is likely that the show’s impact would be a lot more visceral live than on a screen. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

In the beginning, there are teenagers. In jeans and white T-shirts, they zoom around a stage crammed with ladders, chairs, instruments and props: Unto us a show is given. A devised work, dripping with hormones, from the English company Little Bulb Theater, “Operation Greenfield” follows four adolescents in some Middle England town as they meet in a Christian youth group and decide to form a band. There’s Daniel, on guitar, Molly on drums, Alice on accordion, and Violet, a French girl new to the village, on flute. Rehearsing for the town’s annual talent competition, they rock, softly.

“Operation Greenfield,” directed by Alexander Scott, charts teen enthusiasm, teen awkwardness, teen longing. Video doesn’t do many favors — especially video, recorded in 2012 at London’s Battersea Arts Center, that begins with an apology for its low quality. The picture is wonky and the sound shrill. The cast’s exaggerated gestures and faces probably look better from a distance.

But there’s a sweetness to the emotional overdrive and the DIY ingenuity — angel wings, bubble wands, David Bowie masks. The biblical echoes are obvious and deliberate. This quartet inhabits an English Garden of Eden. They’re nibbling at the Tree of Knowledge, but the show ends, in a debatably necessary jam session, before the exile of adulthood. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

A work that celebrates the beauty of everyday routine must have played differently in 2018, back when time felt steadier, more reliable, less like overchewed sugarless gum. A devised piece from the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed (“Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen,”), “Loopstation” takes its name from a musical device that allows musicians to overdub previous tracks. As nine performers spin atop a turntable, they repeat versions of the same actions: A couple eats breakfast; an emergency dispatcher takes calls; a man advertises new businesses by dressing up as a sleeve of French fries, a cockroach, a house. A woman delivers deliberately unfunny stand-up comedy routines about losing her house keys or descaling a kettle.

At just over an hour the piece isn’t long by conventional standards, but here again time goes gooey. In the theater a deliberately dull performance can function as a challenge, a taunt, an opportunity for meditation. Reduced to a laptop screen — “a recording is always a diminished experience,” the show’s director, Alexander Devriendt, says as the video begins — the show’s exploration of banality often becomes merely banal. As shutdown persists as one New York day already feels too much like the next (has it been August forever?), a break from routine might mean more than an eternal reprise. Stop the turntable. I want to get off. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Zoo TV
Available online through Aug. 28; zoofestival.co.uk.

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