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Edinburgh Fringe 2009

East 10th Street: Self Portrait with Empty House

Edgar Oliver

Venue: Traverse


Low Down

This one-man show sees Edgar Oliver, a well known figure in the New York avant-garde theatre scene, telling tales from his time in an East Village house populated by eccentric and lonely characters. His astonishing voice and storytelling skills make this simplest of shows engaging, but it fails to really entrance.




‘East 10th Street’ is a simple show: New York actor Edgar Oliver tells us the story of the East Village tenement building he has spent most of his life in, and of the host of eccentric characters that have haunted it too. There’s no set, just lights from each corner of the stage, illuminating Oliver’s unassuming figure, simply clad in a black shirt and trousers.

But when he opens his mouth – well, anyone unfamiliar with his voice could be forgiven for thinking it was put on. But it becomes apparent this old-style luvvie ‘ac-torr’ is touchingly genuine. His deliciously deep and sonorous voice is fascinating to listen to, extravagantly rolling his ‘r’s, and seeming to savour each prolonged vowel sound.

The tales he tells match his delivery with their own eccentricity. He has a classic New Yorker’s obsession with their flat – but to be fair, his is more interesting than most. Moving into the house on East 10th Street in the 1970s seems to have been tantamount to moving into a mental asylum: downstairs an alcoholic ‘mulatto postman’ drank his vodka with milk (he suffered from ulcers) and waged a vicious war on the old woman who lived in the room next door, in a nest of rags she spent all day, every day washing. She was convinced Hitler stopped over in the house ‘on his way to South America’, which gives a flavour of the inhabitants. Upstairs lived a suspected Nazi officer who made pans of suspicious soup in the closet and a dwarf Cabalist who horded excrement in Maxwell House Coffee jars (it’s the detail that Oliver gets you with), both of whom inexplicably wanted to kill Oliver and his sister.

Oliver’s delivery is consistently entertaining, both funny and slightly eerie – moments of ponderous stillness contrast with his camply performative flurries, hands fluttering and flapping. Somewhat unnervingly, this is an autobiographical piece and these stories are surely true, although it’s all wrapped up in rather verbose language. A consummate performer, Oliver is able to hold the audience’s attention just standing still on an empty stage, which he seems to fill with that splendid voice. It’s impressive, but nonetheless a little limited. This is a performance which comes from the heart, capturing loneliness amongst the grotesqueries of his descriptions, but it is not the most dynamic fare on offer at the festival.