Prague: Fringe Festival presents intentionally offbeat theater
Comedy, drama, singing and dancing and, yes, even a bit of magic — the stage is set for the Prague Fringe Festival, which hits the Czech capital’s dazzling Little Quarter for a nine-day run starting May 24.
Now in its 12th year, the festival, dedicated to English-language performing arts, has helped transform Prague’s vibrant cultural scene; its rotating set of high-caliber international players makes this one of Central Europe’s hottest tickets.
“It has an incredibly intimate feel about it,” said festival co-director and founder Steve Gove. “It’s a mixed bag of all sorts of stuff. The idea of Fringe is that we’ve taken a snapshot of Edinburgh” — home of Scotland’s famed Fringe festival (Aug. 2-26 this year) — “and plunked it down in the middle of Prague.”
The event has attracted a diverse and loyal following with estimates from 2011 showing that more than 44 percent of Fringe visitors are from outside the Czech Republic. In fact, Gove said many people have told him they plan their holidays around the festival.
This development has not gone unnoticed by city hall officials, who, normally stingy with cultural art grants, happily threw Gove some funding this year.
The festival’s 2013 program includes 35 acts from 16 countries playing in about half a dozen cafes and theater spaces surrounding the city’s tony left bank.
“It’s sort of pocket-sized in terms of other fringe festivals,” said Gove, but that is part of the appeal. Visitors can pack in two or three performances per evening, since running times are usually 45 minutes to an hour. The goal, he said, is to create a close-knit relationship between performers and audience. This cozy, free-spirited atmosphere is one of the Fringe’s main selling points.
This year’s lineup has a lot of new names. A troupe from South Africa, for example, is scheduled to perform a series of magic shows (“Stuperstition”), while a New York dance company will create an electrifying world (“Bounce”) using circus globes and balls. Also making their Prague debut are Katy Houska and Timothy Monley with an original act titled “Play Actually,” a cheeky take on romantic myths.
Houska and Monley met and fell in love while studying in France and decided to create a show they could perform around the world. The duo is a regular on the Australian fringe circuit and is looking forward to performing for European audiences.
“The entrancing beauty and energy of Prague notwithstanding, fringe festivals are wonderful, because the world’s new and imaginative theater-makers converge, making a delightful showcase,” Houska said.
One imaginative theater-maker making a return appearance is Gail Whitmore (known as the “Human Jukebox”). A classically trained singer from New York who’s lived in Prague for the past decade, Whitmore can belt out more than 2,000 songs on command.
“It’s a gift. It really is,” she said, then added with smile, “It’s a useless gift sometimes, but it is a gift.” Audiences don’t seem to be complaining: Whitmore enjoyed a sold-out run at last year’s Fringe and seems poised to repeat her success. Her repertoire features everything from opera and mainstream pop hits to R&B and rap.
Prague Fringe always includes several homegrown acts, which speaks to the way the city’s English-speaking performing arts community has evolved in the past two decades. The Prague Shakespeare Company, for instance, will give festival audiences a sneak peek at its 2013-14 season with a take on John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi.”
“This version will be tragedia — a comedia-like style but focused on tragedy — so it will be very, very funny with lots of fake blood and lots of intentional laughs,” said Guy Roberts, artistic director of the Prague Shakespeare Company. “We are taking the very dark, supremely disturbing classic and putting it on its head and examining it from a comedic standpoint.”
Roberts has lived in Prague off and on since 2007 and has watched a number of new theatrical companies sprout up.
“The arts scene is really exploding,” he said. “What is fantastic about Prague is the spirit of adventure. It is a bit like the Wild West in that way — if you have some gumption, you can really create something of value and significance in Prague.”
Julie O’Shea is a freelance journalist who lives in Prague. Email her at email@example.com.
When The Prague Fringe Festival is set for May 24-June 1.
Location Various venues around Prague’s Little Quarter (Malá Strana).
Costs Tickets: 150 Czech koruna (about $7.50) per show or 600 koruna for five shows; discounts for students.
Where to stay • Hotel U Zeleneho Hroznu: Jánský vrsek 11, Malá Strana; (+420) 257 211 775; www.uzelenehohroznu.cz. This upscale boutique hotel is the perfect spot for a romantic getaway. Nestled down a picturesque lane at the base of Prague Castle, the hotel is within walking distance of all the Fringe venues. Room rates range from about $120 a night to about $190.
• Sir Toby’s Hostel Prague: Delnická 24, Holesovice; (+420) 246 032 610; www.sirtobys.com. With direct streetcar access to the Fringe venues, this hip hostel-hotel combo is great for families or those on a budget. Toby’s has a lovely terrace garden, featuring a special summer barbecue menu. Rates range from about $10.50 for a dorm bed to about $50 for a private room.
Food• Kocar z Vidne (Saska 3, Malá Strana; (+420) 777 043 793). This Austrian hotspot’s specialties include Viennese schnitzel and goulash.
• Bohemia Bagel (Lázeñská 19, Malá Strana; (+420) 257 218 192). A popular expat hangout serving sandwiches, salads and burgers.
More information See praguefringe.com.
— Julie O’Shea