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Can the Brits Speak American? An international festival bridges the cultural gap
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

She likes us, but when it comes to being trashy, Dillie Keane says England trumps America every time.

She should know: As the founder and co-star of Fascinating Aida, a British comedy cabaret trio, she's been skewering her native country for over twenty-five years. Her people have never failed to provide her with a politician, a starlet, or a social trend to lampoon.

"The British do low-life fame like nobody else," Keane says. "Anna Nicole Smith was sort of the epitome of trashy celebrity in America, but at least she was pretty. We don't even get that."

But can a show this British make sense in New York? Keane thinks so, and that's why Fascinating Aida is returning for its second stint at Brits Off Broadway, the annual festival at 59E59 that brings new British productions to Gotham. (Fascinating Aida runs December 16-January 3.)

However, that's not to say the show won't change from one country to another. Part of the fascination of the entire Brits Off Broadway festival, now in its sixth year, is that it asks artists and audiences to examine their cultural expectations. When a performer tweaks a joke for a Yankee sensibility, or when a New Yorker absorbs an especially British style of performance, then a production becomes a type of international bridge.

On the most basic level, Keane is adjusting references in her comedy songs, which she performs with her two co-stars in Fascinating Aida. References to the British discount store Tesco, for instance, have been changed to jokes about Wal-Mart. "We don't pretend to be American, but we acknowledge America," Keane says. "If we make British references, then they'll be references you'll understand."

Keane also expects New Yorkers will change the way she works. "Americans are slightly more difficult to make laugh, because we don't have that history with them," she says. "We haven't been performing for them for twenty-five years. You have to work that much harder."

She adds, "Americans are also much savvier, theatre-wise. They go more, so they expect a lot from you. I relish it. It keeps me on my toes."

Actor and playwright Nichola McAuliffe is also anticipating New York's theatre savvy. Her play A British Subject runs at Brits Off Broadway through January 3, and it chronicles the true story of how she and her husband, the journalist Don Mackay, fought for the life of a British man who was sentenced to death in Pakistan. 

"There are certain things I think the Americans will be much quicker about," she says, noting that unlike Britain, the United States has the death penalty. "There's also the religious element," she adds. "We live in an incredibly secular society, to the point that even some of the actors didn't realize the importance of faith in what happened until three weeks in."

If nothing else, there's always the prospect of being in New York itself. McAuliffe says that when she told people back home she was bringing her show to the Big Apple, they tended to get ecstatic. "Even the maitre d' was throwing her arms around me," she says. "It's not just doing the show. It's doing the show in New York. It's the idea of being in the same town where they cast CSI."

For the full Brits Off Broadway schedule, visit http://www.britsoffbroadway.com/

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.