For true theater, try a pub

The other night, the Duke of Florence died right in front of me.

In fact, to make room for his body, I had to pick up my feet like Dagwood lifting his so Blondie can vacuum. No, I didn't have a front-row seat at a political assassination. This was a production of Thomas Middleton's 1625 play "Women Beware Women," and it took place at the Landor Theatre on a stage the size of most people's living rooms.

Talk to anyone in English theater and you'll hear how grateful producers are to the US.

It's estimated that more than half of the tickets for the big West End productions go to Americans who flock to London every year to see everything from Shakespeare classics to such musical perennials as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Misérables" (which the English, with their talent for deflation, call "The Glums").

But there's a lot more to the London scene than the big-ticket shows. And visitors who want to get a real sense of the vitality of contemporary theater owe it to themselves to take in one of the cheap, high-energy fringe productions that cost practically nothing and take place in truly bohemian venues, more often than not a black-walled room with a few benches situated over a noisy pub.

During "Women Beware Women," I thought I detected a fight downstairs, but it turned out to be a televised boxing match.

Part of the way through, a couple of new characters scuttled across the floor, a man with a briefcase under his arm and a woman in a raincoat-no, it was just a pair of latecomers finding their seats.

None of this slowed the action, and the play went on to end in a flurry of trapdoors, tainted gold, poisoned arrows, and deadly incense, which was enough to do in the Duke of Florence and a half dozen of his subjects, all for £10 - or less than a quarter of what I would have paid to see Jean Valjean triumph over injustice in "Les Miz."

Another night, my wife and I went to the Old Red Lion Theatre to see "The Feigned Courtesans" by Aphra Behn, the 18th-century writer who also spied for England and was imprisoned for debt. And the play was as action-packed as its author's life.

It took place in Rome, but since the troupe couldn't afford a fancy set, they passed around photocopied pictures of Roman piazzas and let us use our imaginations.

Speaking of which, one player asked me to hold his sword - actually, an umbrella - while he administered a thrashing to some knave, whereupon he retrieved his "weapon" and ran off to do further damage elsewhere.

(Note to the shy: Think twice about sitting in the front row of a fringe show, since chances of becoming part of the action are magnified proportionally).

As for costumes, the actors wore combinations of little girls' bathrobes, faux snakeskin boots and trousers, wigs made out of feathers plucked from no bird that has ever lived on this planet, technicolor corsets and bustiers - and I'm only talking about the men here.

Just as a loud television could be heard offstage during "Women Beware Women," downstairs a dog barked throughout "The Feigned Courtesans." Actually, it would be more accurate to say the dog downstairs had a recurrent seizure of some kind, but then that's all part of the atmosphere you enjoy at a fringe show.

Fringe plays give a sense of why playacting and storytelling have been vital to ordinary people over the ages. One night we went to see a production of "Othello" on a ship anchored on the Thames.

The play was set in 1982 during the Falklands conflict, when Britain and Argentina engaged in a brief war over a group of islands off the South American coast. Indeed, the cast was dressed in uniforms from that era, though otherwise the play was straight Shakespeare.

But as watery sounds permeated the stage area and the ship swayed in the wake of river traffic, occasioning a green-faced moment of panic from more than one playgoer, I realized the point was to suggest not that the action was taking place in the Falklands but that the play was being acted there, as though the soldiers and sailors had decided to stage it as a distraction from the conflict they'd been committed to by distant, unseen powers.

To find out about fringe shows when you come to London, just buy a copy of the weekly entertainment guide "Time Out" at any newsstand.

And if you have to see "Les Misérables," at least get your ticket at the discount kiosk in Leicester Square.

Because if you're going to see a play that doesn't have a barking dog offstage, at least you shouldn't pay full price.

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