EDINBURGH, Scotland - Along Edinburgh's cobbled Royal Mile, actors draped in the American flag hand out flyers for "Amerwrecka," a musical billed as "'Fahrenheit 9/11' meets 'Moulin Rouge.'" Across town, comedian Paul Chowdhry tests how well an audience will take his jokes about the July 7 London bombings.
Famed for launching the careers of countless standup comics, the Edinburgh Fringe festival has discovered its serious side, with unsettling topics such as Iraq and the war on terror providing grist for playwrights, comedians and composers.
"For me, what the Fringe is all about is new writing and political debate," said Ben Woolf, 25, author of "Angry Young Man," a play about Britain's often uneasy attitude toward immigration. "I think there's a big increase in political engagement, especially among young people."
Now in its 59th year, the Fringe - which runs alongside the older but smaller Edinburgh International Festival each August - is a vast smorgasbord of performance, open to anyone who can put together a show, find a venue and pay a fee of $556. This year, more than 16,000 performers are taking part in 1,800 shows that range from avant-garde drama to kooky cabaret.
There are thespians in Elizabethan dress declaiming verse for the tourists on Edinburgh's medieval streets, and college troupes leafletting relentlessly for their latest musical revue.
But there are also dozens of shows addressing Iraq, the war on terror and the fractious state of domestic politics. Fringe director Paul Gudgin says this year's festival is, "by common consent, the most political Fringe for a long time."
The works range from the deliberately silly - "Terrorist! The Musical" - to harrowing dramas such as "Snuff," Scottish writer Davey Anderson's well-received play about an Iraq war veteran and violence on the home front.
Many comedians have been inspired to poke at raw, uncomfortable subjects. Chowdhry uses his hourlong set to mix jokes about embarrassing parents and dating disasters with material about how his life as a South Asian Londoner has changed since suspected suicide bombers killed themselves and 52 people on the city's transport system last month.
"If you don't laugh at these jokes - they've won," he says of the terrorists.
Many topical shows at the festival test the boundaries of audience discomfort.
"Guardians," by New York-based writer Peter Morris, examines prisoner abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail. His depiction of Pvt. Lynndie England, an American soldier photographed alongside naked Iraqis, as plucky, defiant and reflective is surprisingly sympathetic.
"I'm interested in getting into the psychology of people whose lives and views I might not agree with," said Morris, who is currently writing a musical about the hypercapitalist heroine and author Ayn Rand for singer Debbie Harry.
"I can pretty much take for granted the entire audience will have their minds made up about her (England). So anything that presents her as anything other than a sadistic monster is going against the grain."
The show attracting the greatest criticism so far doesn't open for two weeks, and is part of the high-culture International Festival rather than the freewheeling Fringe.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, called producers "moral midgets" for staging "The Death of Klinghoffer," James Adams' opera about the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists. Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish American in a wheelchair, was shot and thrown overboard during the hostage-taking.
Cooper especially criticized the Scottish Opera production, in which performers dressed as gun-toting terrorists reportedly will sit among the audience before storming the stage.
"We're not in the business of censorship... but you would think that considering where we're at right now, what the people of the United Kingdom are going through, that this would be the last kind of presentation that you would be making," Cooper told The Associated Press.
Director Anthony Nielson has refused to reveal details of the production, but has said it will be "visceral." Scottish Opera says the show "takes an objective and evenhanded approach in an attempt to understand the human motivations behind such terrible events."
For many who attend the Fringe and Edinburgh's international festival, the sheer diversity of offerings - from good to bad to ugly - is the biggest attraction.
"This is the whole world coming together to enjoy theater," said Terry Guerin, a high-school drama teacher from Wynnewood, Pa., attending the Fringe with a student troupe. "It's the best of humanity. It makes me feel more like a citizen of the world, rather than just America."
The Fringe runs until Aug. 29.
Associated Press Writer Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report from London.
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