I am posting this photo of these two girls, one of whom happens to be my daughter at age five or so (on the right), because it is the purest expression I know of the beauty of human beings, and after seeing Chimpskin and then Slashed! in the Fringe, I needed something to remind me that we are not all bad. Seriously, I felt such despair for our species after seeing those two shows, especially Chimpskin - which is a beautiful performance piece, but leaves so little room for hope that a colleague seated next to me was moved to exclaim, "Ugh! I hate humans." A common sentiment these days and one that often comes to mind while driving on the 405 or pretty much anywhere in LA. That's why it's important to have these reference points, these touchstones, that remind us of how loveable we can be. For me it's this photo. For you, something else. Or you're welcome to borrow this image, if it helps to keep the demons away. We can see the consequences of not having anything in the daily destruction all over the world.
MAKE A FRINGE PLAN, BEN HILL LAUGHS
I have spent a crazy amount of time putting together schedules for attending Fringe shows, but this is a less than perfect system, to say the least. For one, some shows respond immediately to a request, while others never seem to get the message. For another, there are so many shows - 375! - and so many that I would like to see, but there are inevitable time overlaps, and - and then one show ends at 6:30 at the Underground on Wilton, while another begins at 6:30 at the Complex on Wilcox and Santa Monica, but unless I use a transporter, I'm not going to get there and find parking until 6:45, by which time they will not allow me to enter. NOTE TO BEN HILL: Next year, every reviewer should get issued a Fringe-authorized transporter, which henceforth shall be called a Fringesporter. Don't be cheap, we're worth it! Because we've invested hours and hours trying to figure out your vercochte system.
OCTOBER BABY by Brooke Baumer
There is no denying that Brooke Baumer has a remarkable and deeply moving story to tell. A practicing Catholic and admitted control freak, Brooke loves the month of October so much that she is determined to have her second child be an October-born baby. She determines the optimal time for her and her husband to have sex toward this end, and it works! She gets pregnant with an expecting date of October 16 - perfect, right? No, not perfect enough for Brooke, since this is the year 2010, she is informed by a relative that if her child is born just 6 days earlier, it will be born on 10-10-10. And so an obsession is born. But suddenly everything starts going wrong with the pregnancy, just as Brooke finds out that her first child has autism. She is devestated that her plans have gone so awry, and asks God for an answer: "Why have I done wrong? Why are you punishing me?" Yes, it's a genuinely great story, but I question whether Brooke is indeed the best one to tell it. She makes several questionable writing decisions which undercut her story's power, such as when she had us view her pregnancy sex in her In-Laws' home through the lens of the furniture on which they are making love and the surrounding rocking chair and armchair. I mean, why does the creaky bed have a southern accent? At least I think it was southern, because Brooke's acting ability is very limited, and her mimicking of her OBGYN often sounds a lot like her mimicking of her husband. Nevertheless, she does have a great story to tell, and in the end we do get very wrapped up in the fate of her family.
DIVORCE: The Hip-Hop Musical by Conor Hanney
This somewhat awkward but always amusing musical doesn't endeavor to find humor in adult divorce. Instead, it tells the story of two fourth-graders (played by actors in their 20s) who decide to break up, which causes their toys to experience heartbreak and disillusion. The show still has a ways to go - it runs only 55 minutes, and even within that brief length, does a lot of spinning its wheels and repeating its better moments. If it can take all that energy and wit it begins with and spin that into a full-length narrative that keeps developing the characters (sometimes it lacks at present), then it will really have something. From a talented cast, Callie Ott and Brianna McClellan stand out.
DOG SEES GOD: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead by Bert V. Royal
This parody of the famous Peanuts comic strip has been around for 10 years and is being performed all over the country and the world, but this is my first encounter with it. It features the familiar comic strip characters of Charlie Brown (here called CB), Pigpen (here called Matt) and Beethoven, and re-imagines them in a darkly comic scenario that ensues after the death of Snoopy. Some of the dark humor seems dated - especially its depiction of gay characters and gay-ness as being exiled to the fringes of the community; though of course there are still many places in which this is sadly the case. This production, directed by Jonah Platt, features teenage actors who are just graduating from high school, and they are all excellent. More than that, they work together wonderfully as a company, and all seem deeply invested in the material, which abjures happy endings and concludes with a shocking tragedy. I was glad for the chance to encounter this play done so well by young actors with so much commitment.
URBAN THEATRE MOVEMENT PRESENTS URBAN UNREST: A Series of Short Plays
The Urban Theatre Movement also uses dark humor to make their points, but these are anything but comic book characters. The actors who bring these short plays to life are white, black, Latino and Jewish - the emphasis is on ethnic identity in the urban jungle of our cities. Drugs, sex and guns are the subjects that dominate, and there are also interludes from an African-American narrator who tells parables with tragic twists. Yet of the four plays presented, only the final one, Replica by Paul Tully, really emerged as a strong and memorable piece of writing, a play rather than a skit. This involved a small-time drug dealer played with paranoid humor by Spencer Weitzel in a performance that had echoes for me of Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park. He is selling such high-grade Meth that his friend Paul (played by the author, Tully) begs for a chance to peddle it in his neighborhood and make a big score. The pitch-black comedy that unfolds has some elegant and unexpected twists and turns, but it still struck me as minor-league Stephen Adley Guirgis. Lo and behold, when I got home I noticed that the play's program featured an endorsement from Mr Guirgis himself, who called the group "excellent. I love them." They are very good, and are certainly worthy of our support. But the bar has been raised so high on "the urban unrest" that surrounds us and the deepening crises of inner-city dwellers, that we need better and sharper plays than the first three presented here.
BONO AND THE EDGE WAITING FOR GODOMINO'S
Just realized that I forgot to include this very funny show in my original tour, so I'm squeezing it in now. While a parody of Beckett's Waiting for Godot that will appeal to all theater geeks, it's also a hoot for the general public in its spin around the recordings of U2, notable both for their great musicianship and their sometimes pretentious self-seriousness. All the actors are wonderful, and the final twist that comes with the arrival of the longed-for pizza takes it to another level. Do the bandmates finally find what they're looking for? Catch the last show on Saturday at 7 to find out!
WE ARE TRAFFIC: a rideshare adventure by Jonathan Lipton Meyers
And we have a winner, folks! In the Twisted Hipster's constant search for Epiphanies, I have found the man whose entire show turns out to be an epiphany, one that elevates him at the end of this "ride" onto a plane (so to speak) of boundless optimism. Jonathan Lipton Meyers has given us a ride very much worth taking, as he has all the qualities one looks for in both an Uber driver and the star of his own one-man show: he's a great storyteller, and he genuinely seems to love what he's doing. While Jonathan freely admits that he has not accomplished many of the goals he set himself when coming out to Los Angeles, he has, I believe, learned something more valuable: who he is and what his strengths are, both as a performer and a person. Because what comes across in the hour-long "ride" is how much Jonathan is like us - how imperfect and vulnerable he is, and yet how resilient and unflappable too. There's no room for self-pity or self-aggrandizement in Jonathan's vehicle, and it is the absence of these that makes it great to be riding with him. Well, okay, I can't speak for everyone, but he certainly made me feel that way, and I felt closer to everyone else because of the warm embrace of his fellowship. Jonathan has found an entire philosophy in the act of picking up strangers and giving them rides. He is truly an Uber-philosopher for our times, Lyfting us up through his acceptance of himself and what his life has become. If I'm going to put on my grumpy critic's face at all, it would just be to wonder if his epiphany at the end is entirely earned, if it might be a bit general and a bit show-bizzy - that is, giving the audience (or the riders) what he knows we want to hear. But maybe that's my problem - maybe I'm just suspicious of finding the very epiphany I've been looking for. Kudos to Matt Ritchey for his excellent directing work, as he has certainly coached Jonathan well in how to maintain the rhythm and flow of his "ride" until that final moment when we reach our destination - one that I hope each of you will get to experience too someday soon.
And now we have come back to Chimpskin and Slashed! The Musical and the end of OUR ride.
CHIMPSKIN uses choreograph movement and stage imagery to tell the story of Lucy, a chimp taken from the wild and taught human language as part of a scientific experiment. It is gracefully performed and quite heart-rending.
SLASHED! THE MUSICAL is a takeoff on the horror genre in which campers are slashed to bits by a ghostly killer for having sex or otherwise engaging in taboo activities. By any standard, this is neither inventive nor does it add anything to the many examples of the genre. It's a knockoff of a knockoff of a knockoff. Nevertheless the full house of devotees I saw it with screamed and shouted and cheered whenever a body was hacked up and purposely fake-looking body parts were tossed into the audience. The songs were depressingly witless, and only Fayna Sanchez as the crazy lady who knows the truth (but can't get anyone to listen) manages to rise above the blood and guts and add some style and wit.
Which bring us back to my private epiphany, this picture of innocence. But now it looks kind of creepy, doesn't it? I mean, depends on how look at it, but.... damn! Kind of creepy. How did that happen?