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“You’d have to be crazy to move to Georgia.” Such is the madcap moral of the new Georgian play Hello 100 Dollar Bucks!, now playing at Edinburgh’s New Town Theatre.
You’d have to be crazy, too, to go in search of Georgian theatre. Getting hold of the Georgian Theatre Festival programme required a trawl through an obscure Facebook group; the advertised venues and dates were almost uniformly incorrect. Runs had been lengthened or shortened (in one case, the show’s set had apparently been held up at customs for most of the run); pieces had been moved across town; no information whatsoever was available at the Fringe festival website. (According to the Scotsman, most of the festival shows missed the brochure deadline.) By the time I got my hands on a press ticket for Bucks at the unseasonably early hour of 10 am, I’d reached peak Fringe frustration.
But Hello 100 Dollar Bucks!, inexplicably redundant title and all, is a winning ode to Georgianness: a spirited and gleeful celebration of Kartvelian chaos. Not that you’d know it for much for the play, written by Inga Garuchava and Piotr Khotsianovsky. For the first hour, Bucks is a melancholy, surprisingly touching story of the relationship between Georgian immigrant Eliko and the elderly – presumably demented – American woman for whom she serves as carer. Incapable of controlling basic bodily functions (let alone speech), the aged millionairess Mary has been abandoned by her self-involved daughter, leaving Eliko to look after her for the titular sum of $100 a day. Eliko doesn’t mind, though. She regales Mary with Georgian monologues she knows her charge will not understand; she reminisces about the homeland with the Georgian Jew Ben, who comes in weekly to regale Mary with classical music on her prized violin (their relationship – one of understated mutual understanding – was perhaps the most romantic pairing I’ve seen this Fringe). We think we are watching a melancholy drama about varieties of exile, abandonment, and loss, about the impossibility of ever going home again.
Then things get strange. In a piece of stunning absurdism that’s never fully explained (nor should it be), Mary “snaps” back into mental wakefulness – completely fluent in Georgian. What follows is thirty minutes of rapid-fire plot twists, traditional Georgian music and fairy-tale contrivances, grounded in the comic exchanges between Eliko and the formidable Mary, who is out with a vengeance to regain the autonomy she has lost. It makes little sense, but the verve and energy of the play’s central actors (with a surrealistically hilarious cameo by Mary’s American dance tutor, who too becomes enamored of Georgian culture) carry us through it, and it’s a testament to the emotional truthfulness built up in the play’s first hour that the somewhat tidy conclusions feel earned: I found myself actively rooting for a “happily ever after”.
Less overtly entertaining, perhaps, but hardly less engaging, was Diary of a Dress, playing over at the Hill Street Theatre. Starring Tamri Bzavia (daughter of Keti Dolidze, director of Bucks and one of the grande dames of Georgian theatre) as a little black dress, Diary follows the journey of the titular dress from a Moscow shop to a Tbilisi wardrobe, tracing the relationship of the dress to two generations of Georgian women. The script sometimes feels a bit slight – sex, love, war, all come and go too quickly to have much real impact – but Bzavia’s smoky, chanteuse-style energy carries us through it. While at times the clarity of the words gets lost beneath Bzavia’s slight accent, Bzavia’s physical presence is palpable throughout – she is fully convincing both as a slinky dress and, by extension, the women to whom that dress belongs.
At both of the performances I witnessed, attendance was painfully sparse – perhaps a function of the unenviable morning time slots as well as the organizational chaos that seems to have marked the festival. This was a great shame. If these two productions were anything to go by, the GIFT Festival may well have been one of the Fringe’s all-too-common unsung highlights.
Hello 100 Dollar Bucks! closes at Edinburgh’s New Town Theatre on August 25. See the theatre website for more information.