This post is a review of the shadow-puppet play The Accidental Dog Detective by Curl & the Burners, Laughing Horse @ the Argyle, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2009.
Last night Nana and I went to our first Free Fringe show, at the Argyle Bar, just south of the Meadows. The Free Fringe is the Fringe at its purest: a bunch of low-fi (or no-fi) shows, mostly comedy, crammed into the basements and back rooms of local bars, where for the price of a drink you can watch amateurs and hopefuls trying hard to turn a few precious eyes.
And "The Accidental Dog Detective," a talking-animal film-noir spoof in the form of a shadow puppet play, was everything one could hope for in a Free Fringe show. The concept was delightfully absurd, the performers eager, the audience lubricated, and as a result the show provided unrelenting (if sometimes too unrelenting) fun. Plus, the venue only added to the atmosphere: with the help of a slinky jazz soundtrack, the dim, green-lit basement felt like a 1930s speakeasy or a mob gambling den.
On the whole, the show did a lot of things well. The performers pulled off quite a few pleasing special effects, such as the film-style opening credits, and the puppets themselves were appropriately silly. Throughout, the show maintained a high level of energy, playing constantly on the absurdity of the show's form (the shadow puppet medium) and its content (a screwy hardboiled detective plot). As a result the show provided plenty of laughs.
On the other hand, many aspects of the show were a bit rough. For example, the Burner's attempt at a Brooklyn accent wasn't only way off, but also made some of his lines difficult to understand--though the actor's tendency to speed-talk surely didn't help. Curls' American accents, however, were varied and impeccable. Her only (possible) slip was in playing a minor character named Goldstein with a thick Southern drawl, though I still haven't decided if that was supposed to be a joke.
Which leads us to the main problem with the show: too often, the pace was simply too fast and the plot too scattered for the audience to keep up. For one, while the writing did produce some wonderful one-liners, quite a few of the gags were pretty stale. At one point, for instance, the puppeteers stepped out from behind the screen to remind the lead puppet that, for reasons of copyright, he couldn't call Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie by their real names. (Polite laughs all around.) At other times, gags were rushed, or simply missed the mark, such as when, for no apparent reason, the protagonist interrupted the plot to visit a seedy motel, just to set up a strange throwaway gag involving a wasp getting freaky with a roach, to the tune of (what else?) Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On."
Moreover, the show's only real attempt at a running joke--the dog detective's habit of speaking his internal monologues aloud for others to hear--was played long past its expiration date. In other words, while there were a lot of little laughs, the show provided few big payoffs.
Overall, while the show was thoroughly charming and frequently very funny, the script needs a cold-hearted edit. Of course, the same could be said of a lot of Free Fringe shows that aren't half as spirited and entertaining as "The Accidental Dog Detective." My verdict: well worth the price of a pint.