WHY HAROLD CLURMAN WOULD HAVE LOVED THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE

I went to the Hollywood Fringe Post-Mortem two weeks ago at Sacred Fools. 10 people there. Including Ben Hill and Matt Quinn.

Remember the crowded parties? Lots of empty seats here.

The party was still going on for a few shows, but this felt more like a wake.  Which was cool.  As wakes go, this one was more productive than most, with some genuine introspection from Ben and Matt and Richard Lucas (from Bono and the Edge Waiting for Godomino’s) and Steven Vlasak (from Nights at the Algonquin Round Table) and a few other hardy souls.  There were only 2 women present, and I think both of them were on the administrative side with Ben and Matt.  Why was that, I wonder?  If I was writing the scene, I would probably have had more women than men there, because I’d feel that women in general cared more and would have more passionate feelings about how the Fringe could be improved.  But no.  None showed up.  Just shows you that life is always surprising and most assumptions are wrong.

Ben Hill at the Post-Mortem

Way back in May, when Enci and I were gearing up to cover the Fringe, I was contacted by a freelance reporter who had somehow gotten hold of some angry words I had written about Fringe 2013 at its conclusion. Something to the effect that it was just a scam, the means for a few people in power to fill their pockets, at the expense of the artists.  I would say now that this can be true – and may be true for some of the participants – but in general my views have evolved.  I think that Ben Hill and Matt Flynn and most of the folks running venues involved in the Fringe work very hard and do try their best to make this a good experience for the participants.  But Fringe is, in fact, a game – a game that some play well, while others play poorly.  The game involves crafting an irreverent and/or clever entertainment that has a powerful but easily grasped message and that can be loaded in and loaded out of a theater space with speed and economy.  Those who understood how to play the game did well.  Those who didn’t, didn’t.  That simple.

Back when I was but a lad of 24, I had the great good fortune of studying with Harold Clurman at the Actors Studio in NYC.

Harold was the driving force behind the Group Theatre in the 1930s, which is still the most influential collective in shaping the American aesthetic, the homegrown American style of making theater, as opposed to the one we inherited from our British forbears.  Harold also wrote my favorite book about the American theater, The Fervent Years, which is his personal history of the Group.

Harold was always fond of saying that it took hundreds of theatrical misfires to make it possible for a great play to be born.  This is not to say that the shows in the Fringe were any more or less good than any of the productions at more established LA theaters – only that there were more of them, and that they were often different in kind.  So while there were productions like The Motherfucker with the Hat, which in fact had had a “regular” theatrical run, most of the Fringe plays were only an hour or less in running time and would likely never be seen again after the Fringe.  Or were so offbeat in their conception (something like Too Many Hitlers comes to mind) that it is hard to imagine any other forum in which they might be presented.

Which is just why Harold would have loved them.  It was precisely the enormous variety which the Fringe offered that represented for Harold what a healthy and vital American theater would look like.  And why I think it’s a shame that so many theater professionals and artistic directors stayed away – and felt somehow proud of having done so, referring to the Fringe as a distraction and heaving a sigh of relief at its departure.

Well, folks, I caught a final wave of shows, and I do believe that they are  worth taking a look at.

HOT DATES by Shiragirl

So, from Harold Clurman to Shiragirl – a transition that Harold would defiinitely have loved, since he was  partial to blond young women and often had one on each arm.  And Shira Leigh is a very sexy and attractive performer, who basically does an emotional striptease for her audience, confiding her sexual journey from naive high school girl to sex with studley young guys to a passionate lesbian relationship to a traditional hetero marriage to … uncertainty.  Looking for love and having a very hard time finding it.  But it didn’t feel like Shira was really searching for love – rather, she was searching for the comforting embrace of fame, that warm Kardashian glow that would give her the security of being worshipped by multitudes.  This made the first part of her show seem very calculated and, well, manipulative.  It’s evident that Shira is also very smart, and she understands that if adoration hasn’t been achieved yet, the odds were no longer with her.  This lends the latter part of her show some poignancy, as she contemplates her current state of alone-ness. Hopefully she will transition into the more truthful and self-examining show that she appears to be capable of.  But then again, dancing to techno music is such a crowd-pleaser, maybe she won’t.

THE PLEASURE PROJECT, Written and Performed by Ava Bogle

The plot of Ava Bogle’s 45 minute show – and there is a plot of sorts – is that there are aliens among us, and their minds have been blown by the massively earth-shaking power and pleasure of the female orgasm.  They would gladly hang around our planet for all eternity experiencing this, except that the earth is due to explode on November 8th of this year, so they have to return to their own dull but secure planet.  We see Ava playing all of these aliens on tape as they meet one last time, then the video ends, and she comes out as each alien in turn to examine and dramatize their feelings about having to leave.  It’s not really the most dynamic idea, and I can’t say that my mind was ever blown by any ability she showed to morph into different characters.  No, what made her show memorable – and it is just that – is her capacity to beguile us with her innocence.  There is a purity to her odes to the vulva that is really quite wonderful to behold.  And, unlike Shiragirl, she never tries to bend us to her will, never demands our adoration, never seems to want anything from us except to convey her own love of and gratitude for the orgasm.  She’s really like a cheerleader for sexual pleasure.  There’s something so refreshing in that, so un-puritanical, that I can only admire the single-mindedness of her focus.  I am, again, old enough to remember flower children and Woodstock and all those emblems of innocence before they became so badly tarnished.  Ava Bogle somehow manages to channel these forces in the time machine of her artistry and touch on something child-like and wondrous in sexual feelings that is so difficult to express anymore.   Before such guilelessness, this critic can only lay down his pen and let it wash over him.

MEXISTANI! Growing up Mexican and Pakistani in America by Sofie Khan

At the opening of her excellent one woman show, Sofie Khan rightly calls herself the poster-person for Trump’s anti-immigration policies.  Born to a Mexican mother and a Pakistani father, she grew up to discover that she was also bi-sexual.  All of this gives her a very unique and provocative angle of perception on the current immigration crisis, not just in this country but in the world.  Fortunately, she’s also personable and relatable performer who brings us into her world with great ease and lets us experience both the small and the large miscarriages of justice that are visited on people everyday who have been categorized as “the other.”  Her show is so effective because we identify so completely with Sofie and share her experiences of “other-ness” with the same outrage that she felt.  She’s a great ambassador for Mexicans, for Muslims and for the LGBTQ community, and I imagine that she will be very busy in the immediate future giving versions of her show at schools and community centers, as well as at comedy shows.  I’m really glad to be introduced to her work, and I wish her all the luck in the world in bringing some sanity to what has become such an insane and regrettable situation in our society and beyond.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A VAMPIRE, Written by Marni L.B. Troop

Though this was my first encounter with it, I see that this show has been around Los Angeles for a while, having first been done at the Eclectic Theatre in North Hollywood in 2014 and reappearing around Halloween since then.  It tells the story of Brenda, a young Goth woman so bored by the predictability of life that she only wants one thing – to become a vampire.  She only has one close friend, another Goth girl who she’s grown up with, and there’s a potentially interesting story about their friendship being tested by their vampiring yearnings, but this play isn’t interested in telling that story.  It has an interesting twist at the end which is genuinely twisted, but the journey getting there just feels like a gimmick, a sketch.  It doesn’t really feel substantial enough to be a successful Halloween standard, but it could be.  I just don’t think the playwright really wants to work that hard.

TOYS, created, written and performed by Christina Evans

Sex trafficking is a terrible crime.  Sex trafficking and all such exploitation of children everywhere should be wiped off the face of the earth.  I hope that, whatever differences of opinions we may have, we can all agree on that.  And the fact that most of us can and do also mutes the power of a show like Toys, which tries to shock us with the inhuman cruelty of such crimes.  If I was a child or perhaps even a teenager, I would be troubled by it.  But this is one case where I think film is much more effective in conveying how human beings can inflict this kind of atrocity on each other.  When you get the full impact of an image in the first 10 seconds, and then the piece goes on for another 17 minutes, I just don’t think it effectively rouses us to action, which is what it clearly wants to do.

THE SECOND COMING OF KLAUS KINSKI by Andrew Perez

This is a very odd show.  It’s odd in the way that shows are that become cult hits or attract a following, which this show very well may do.  Is it good?  I don’t know.  Andrew Perez has certainly immersed himself in the consciousness and worldview of the 20th century actor Klaus Kinski, who achieved fame in the remarkable Werner Herzog films (now classics) Aquirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu, as well as in Herzog’s documentary about him,  My Best Fiend.  Kinski has nothing nice to say about Herzog here, but then he eschews niceness and the niceties in general for exclamations of disgust with people and contempt for the human race.  Perez does a generally good job in maintaining an insane intensity far past the point where most others could.  The experience reminded me of Peter Handke’s play Offending the Audience mixed with a reading of anything by the French novelist-philosopher Louis-Ferdinand Celine.  I kind of enjoyed it because it was so emphatically unpleasant and abusive, two things that Southern Californians avoid being in public at all costs.  I mean, you can die of niceness here.  Kinski’s hideous behavior, his unrelenting horror at the misery of human existence, was kind of a tonic, shaking me out of my Jamba Juice haze, my Pinkberry daydreams and reminding me of how ugly so much of the world is.  If it comes around again, I recommend giving it a try, if only to experience something completely different.  But please, don’t bring the kids.

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