THE Twisted Hipster BEST OF LOS ANGELES THEATER 2017

As 2017 winds down, I think it's inevitable that we ask ourselves: what was that all about?

There were expectations we had - some were met, most weren't.  There was money made - or not.  Or maybe a windfall, who knows?

There were a series of events... things that happened with parents, children, friends, lovers, business associates, strangers... mostly they were the same things that happened in 2016 and 2015, but with some slight variations.  Or maybe this year was uemarkably different. Who knows?

For the Twisted Hipster, the end of this year marks the end of my year-long return to journalism - something I pursued for 10 years in the last century (or last millenium) for The New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, New York Newsday, American Theatre, In These Times, and many others.   I returned to journalism only once this century, 16 years ago, when I wrote a piece for the New York Times "Arts and Liesure" section about the effect of 9/11 on Downtown New York theater.  But I really appreciate the opportunity that Enci and Steven Box of Better-Lemons gave me to take up the journalist's pen again, and the freedom to write what I wanted to.  I've learned a lot about my adopted city, and the dreamers who are drawn to the Dream Factory, as well as the Dreamers being threatened with exile.

Of course, the theme of the moment is it's good to be rich.  Those with money keep making more and will get that windfall I mentioned with this disgusting new Tax Bill.  Those of us without wealth hang on more perilously than ever.  But we do hang in there, yes we do.

No art form is more perilous these days than the theater - as analog as it gets, with no rewind or fast-forward buttons, no collectible value, and completely dependent on the kindness of many strangers (the audience) - especially hard in a TV/Film town like Hollywood.  I attended as many plays as I could last year, which isn't easy with the bad traffic and the worse parking - I'm still fighting a few parking tickets I got at the Fringe.  I'm not sure that most people understand how difficult it is to make good theater, which budgetary restrictions keep making harder.  After a year of watching other people do it, I'm more impressed by this than ever.

Here then are the 25 best shows I saw here last year - the TOP 12, and then 13 others that were excellent too.  It wasn't a spectacular year in Los Angeles theater - or maybe it was, and it just didn't seem that way at the time.  Certainly there is a great deal more stage brilliance here than the world (or the non-theatergoing population of Los Angeles) gives us credit for.

So, going backwards (as I so often do), 3-12, in no particular order:

33 VARIATIONS - Here a remarkable play by Moises Kaufman received the remarkable production it deserved by director Thomas James O'Leary and the production team at the Actors Co-op.  Nan McNamara, playing a musicologist and Beethoven expert stricken with ALS, was simply phenomenal.  As good as Jane Fonda was in the role at the Ahmanson (in a production directed by the playwright), I was far more deeply affected this time, and the many levels of the play were much clearer to me.  Kudos to designer Nicholas Acciani for his evocative and wonderfully functional multi-level set.

BOB'S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY - The fun has been going on for 22 years, but this is the first time I caught it, and I was laughing so hard that it was difficult to write down any notes.   Joe Keyes and Rob Elk have developed a certain formula that features the talents of some wonderful comic actors working off each other with perfect timing.  I'm not sure I would have been as swept away as I was in other years, but this felt like the perfect entertainment for the first (and hopefully last) year of Trump.  The comedic masterminds seemed to sense this too, and their romp was filled with explicit references to Trump and his denigrating way of referring to "outsiders," meaning all those people who aren't on his side.  It was a perfect blending of the past and present for this show, and as far as I'm concerned, they should keep distracting us as much as possible from the heinousness of our political nightmare.

ROTTERDAM - This is one of the only shows on the list still running, so I urge anyone who hasn't been to the Skylight Theatre yet and caught this excellent play to stop right now and make your reservation.  This is another example of a wonderful play (by John Brittain) receiving an equally wonderful production, care of director Michael Shepperd and his deeply relatable cast.  What makes this play about a transgender woman of color and her gay girlfriend so memorable is how human-size all the problems are, how they are trying to figure out the riddle of their lives in just the same way the rest of us are - without knowing any real answers or how it may or may not work out.

RULES OF SECONDS - This play by John Pollono was seen by far too few when it debuted at LATC downtown. Featuring Amy Brenneman and one of the best casts I've seen on any LA stage, the play delves deeply into the all-too-relevant subject of toxic masculinity as memorably exemplified by Jamie Harris in this 1855 Boston setting.  "A 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th century," Charles McNulty wrote in the LA Times, and we agree that Jo Bonney staged it with great panache and technical mastery.  What impressed me most was the play's constant inventiveness and refusal to settle for easy answers.  It was produced by the Latino Theater Company. As their first offering, it bodes well both for their future and for ours.

SOMETHING ROTTEN - This is another show that's still running, though for only a few more performances.  If you love musicals and you like to laugh, then this is a show for you.  To quote my own review:  "Yes, it owes a large debt to Mel Brooks - not just The Producers, but also the musical number at the end of Blazing Saddles - but this show has its own brand of historical and parodic zaniness, and it does a masterful job of keeping a sense of real stakes while continuing to move the story and characters forward.  To my mind, every element of this production is brilliant, top-tier, and yet they all come together to form something that is greater than the sum of its wonderful parts.  This is so rarely achieved, and I am in awe of the many talents at work at such a high level here."

Alex Alpharoah

WET: A DACAmented Journey - This is one of the pieces I saw this past year that affected me most profoundly and stayed with me the longest. As I wrote at the time:  "It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free."  We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe.  Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music."  Kudos to EST-Los Angeles for helping Mr Alpharoah to develop his work and then supporting it with an ample production run.  Mr Alpharoah's monologue is nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Play, and he would be a deserving winner.  Again, a good example of what a difference small theaters can make in the cultural landscape of our large and sprawling city.

MASTER CLASS - As I wrote: This is the first production of the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), but I have to admit that I didn't have high expectations.  The play Masterclass was first produced in 1995 - right here at the Ahmanson,  then on Broadway - and it has been revived several times. Was this really how you want to kick off a new theater?  Well, the answer is Yes.  This is a stellar revival.  In fact, it's so alive, so strong moment-to-moment, that it doesn't feel like a revival, it feels like an Event.  This is thanks largely to Carolyn Hennessy, who simply seems to BE Maria Callas.  She inhabits the play, she comes to life as a creature of the stage, full of joy, sorrow and many contradictions.  Credit must go to director Dimitri Toscas, who is also co-director of the Garry Marshall Theatre (GMT).  He clearly has a passionate connection to this play and to the character of Callas.  He deeply feels her pain - the pain of dislocation and loneliness.  "You know the only place where Callas truly fit in? On stage. In the opera house," Toscas writes in the program notes, and he wonderfully dramatizes this on the GMT's stage.

George Wyner and Sharron Shayne in "Daytona"

DAYTONA - This fascinating play had a brief run at Rogue Machine and was forced to close down just as word of its excellence was starting to get around.  There is word that it may be coming back soon - here's hoping that's true.  As I wrote:  There are so many great older actors in Los Angeles, and far too few plays that really give them anything to perform.  But Daytona by Oliver Cotton has three terrific roles, which are inhabited to the hilt by George Wyner and Sharron Shayne as a long-married couple and Richard Fancy as Mr Wyner's long-absent brother, under the pitch-perfect direction of Elina de Santos.  The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1986, where Joe and Elli are preparing for their dance competition the next evening, a hobby they've cultivated for the past 15 years.  Then Elli goes out to pick up her dress from her sister. Suddenly the downstairs buzzer sounds.  Joe is shocked to hear the voice of his brother Billy, whom he hasn't heard from for the past 30 years, and whose entrance will shake up the easy-going world of Joe and Elli.

THE GARY PLAYS - These 6 plays (there are 8 in the entire series) are a real anomaly in the American cannon – epic in length and scope, yet intimate in feeling.  Directed with great imagination and a spirit of generosity and compassion by Guy Zimmerman and presented by Martha Demson and her tireless team at Open Fist.  Director Zimmerman describes Mednick's plays this way: “The series is uniquely the product of the LA theatre community – it could not have been created anywhere else.  And Gary, an unemployed actor struggling with grief and self-recrimination after his only son's murder, is an iconic LA character.”  There's so much more to it – and Jeff Lebeau's depiction of Gary in the first 3 plays is so remarkable, so memorable, he simply crawls into the character's skin.  For my money, Part II is the best evening of theater I can remember seeing in Los Angeles, it just buzzes with emotional intensity.  These are plays about LA Theater that achieve the kind of universality that all playwrights crave.  These plays should be celebrated, as should those who have lovingly brought them back to such vivid life.

UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences - I had seen this monodrama by Glen Berger several times before, but this production at the Geffen Playhouse made it all new for me.  This strange but compelling play introduces us to The Librarian, who has rented this hall in order to present his "Lovely Evidences" about a book that was turned in several decades late, and the offender whom he has become obsessed with tracking down.  Arye Gross played The Librarian here, and he may well be as close to perfection as anyone can be in the role.  Sporting a huge beard, he reminded me of aother lonely castaway, the main character in Dostoievski's Notes from Underground.  But unlike that man, filled as he is with self-loathing, the Librarian finds a sense of purpose and triumph in his discoveries, even if they lead him further away from human affection than ever.  Under Steven Robman's inventive direction - much more theatrical and detail-oriented than the one I saw in NYC in 2002 - Arye Gross attained a level of joy and excitement - even exuberance - which was infectious.

My two favorite shows from 2017 (drum roll, please):

2. LES BLANCS  - If you missed this production at Rogue Machine, you may never get another chance to see this fascinating play from one of our great playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at age 34.  Hansberry's first play, Raisin in the Sun, is an American classic, deservedly beloved and frequently performed.   Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window,  is very much an examination of social conditions in the late 1960s and has more value now as a social document than as a work of theater.  Neither of her earlier plays give any indication of the ambition, scope and sheer theatricality that Les Blancs contains, as she depicts on a huge canvas - with 24 characters! - the unresolvable problems created by American and European colonialism in Africa.  Huge kudos to Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn for having the determination and resourcefulness to give this truly important play its Los Angeles premiere.  Director Gregg T. Daniels does an admirable job in bringing this world of a white-run mission in the heart of Africa to mosquito-swatting theatrical life.  The set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is one of the best of the year - roughhewn slats of dark wood primitively lashed together  - truly capturing the essence of this place, so far removed from European civilization and regarded with such condescension by the white American liberal journalist, whose arrival in this village signals the beginning of the drama.  Jeff Gardner's sound design is also one of the year's best, bringing the surrounding jungle to auditory life.  A percussionist, Jalani Blunt, brilliantly plays Gardner's African compositions on a variety of instruments, and Shari Gardner's African dancing is haunting and inescapably vivid.  Yes, the play has scenes that go on too long and monologues that ramble; these are things that I'm sure Hansberry would have given better shape to had her life not been cruelly interrupted. But the fire that burns at the heart of this play - that burns a path of destruction through the lives of all these characters - is still very much with us today.  And I know of no other play that brings it to life s0 compellingly.

1. MR BURNS -  One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production of Anne Washburn's dystopian fantasy was that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they were able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This was absolutely ideal for Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which was, quite simply, what this production was as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible.  All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!"  You completely blew my mind.  And tickets were only $15!!! Amazing.

Other Extraordinary Productions from this past year in Los Angeles - thanks for the memories:

The cast of ZOOT SUIT in the revival at the Mark Taper Forum

WOODY'S ORDER by Ann Talman, directed by John Shepard, at EST-Los Angeles, Atwater Village Theater

CAUGHT by Christopher Chen, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskander at the Think Tank Gallery

ZOOT SUIT, written and directed by Luis Valdez, at the Mark Taper Forum

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson, directed by Michele Shay at the Matrix Theatre

PLASTICITY by Alex Lyras, directed by Robert McCaskill at the Hudson Guild

THE SECRET IN THE WINGS by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Joseph V. Calarco, presented by the Coeurage Theatre Company

SO LONG BOULDER CITY by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, directed by Jordan Black, at the Celebration Theatre

Katy Owens in "Adolphus Tips"

REDLINE by Christian Durso, directed by Eli Gonda, presented by the IAMA Theatre Company

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS - adapted from the book by Michael Murpurgo by Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, directed by Emma Rice, at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS by Bruce Graham, directed by Stewart J. Zully at the Road Theatre

And from the Fringe:

MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adley Gurgius, directed by Tony Gatto

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone, directed by Vince Fusco

EASY TARGETS by the Burglars of Hamm, presented at Sacred Fools


Hollywood Fringe's TURBULENCE Hits Downtown NYC Theatre Scene!

The Los Angeles-based comedy improv troupe Robot Teammate is crossing the country in October to make its New York debut at the SoHo Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series. The troupe will be performing its original scripted musical, Turbulence!, which won Best Musical, Best World Premiere, Critics' Choice, and A Little New Music's Award for Outstanding Songwriting at the Hollywood Fringe this past June.

Since this marks the ensemble's debut on the East Coast, performers/writers/producers Chris Bramante, Molly Dworsky and Kat Primeau were happy to participate in a roundtable interview about this exciting event.

How did the opportunity arise for Robot Teammate to make its New York theater debut with Turbulence!?

Molly Dworsky: Our Fringe audiences have come to know us as passionate creators of new comedy musicals and have honored us by filling the seats of our venue and telling their friends to come, too. Our hard-earned reputation garnered interest from an important stranger this year — a theater scout from New York who saw Turbulence! He reached out to us see if we'd like to co-produce the show at his theater, the SoHo Playhouse, for its Fringe Encore series. We were elated and said yes immediately!

artwork: Monica M. Magana and Dan Schaffer

Has any member of the cast worked in New York theater before? If so, what were the circumstances?

Chris Bramante: Beyond writing and performing in playwright colloquiums when I was studying at NYU Tisch, this will be my very first actual New York theater production. When I think about it that way...well, hot dog! I'm even more psyched than I already was, which was quite a darn bit.

Kat Primeau: I did an Off-Broadway Playwrights Festival years ago, performing Dana Lynn Formby's beautiful short play, Armed with Peanut Butter, and later spent time interning at Culture Project, a political theater company. I had the time of my life, dropping postcards off at theaters around Manhattan and feeling the electricity of the sidewalks powering me along as we endeavored to make the world a better place through art.

What's the most exciting aspect of bringing the show to the SoHo Playhouse?

Molly: While Robot Teammate has traveled for the weekend here and there around the Southwest for festivals, two-day residencies and workshops, we have never undergone a cross-country trip together, nor have we tested a run of a show outside of California. This will be groundbreaking for our team, and we all love this work and each other so much. We are over the moon about sharing the experience of New York theater performance with each other.

Chris: I'm excited about being a mere few blocks away from Blue Ribbon Sushi. But even more so, getting to assemble and meet with other artists bringing their work to the Festival and this super dope venue. As a Hamilton obsessee, the fact that the theater used to be owned by Aaron Burr (sir) is also a fun bit of something.

Kat: I love viewing theater from all around the world. It's always a treat to see different artists' processes and products. I love meeting new producing entities and getting insight to what work and subject matter interests them. It's consumer research, understanding what artists and audiences are hungry for. I'm really looking forward to connecting with international and regional companies also participating in the festival. An opportunity to travel with your craft is always amazing, especially when it reunites you with old producing partners and new potential collaborators!

Martians from Turbulence (photo by Matt Kamimura)

What are you most looking forward to experiencing in the Big Apple?

Molly: I'm sure it's slightly different for everyone, but I'm excited to not have to worry about driving or parking! I can't wait to walk everywhere and use great public transportation. Also, connecting with dear friends in New York will be a top priority.

Chris: New York is a second home to me, as I lived there for five years, first studying at NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing and then working my first job in media at ABC News. I cannot wait to see all my friends, family and professors who are still living and thriving in the city. I've been performing with Robot Teammate out in Los Angeles for over five years and so many of my beloved people have never gotten the chance to see my little musicbot family. I hope the current student body of the Department of Dramatic Writing attends. Ya see, kids? Study hard and show up to class and then one day you can stomp around in shiny silver hot pants just like this alum.

Kat: I can't wait to spend time with my friends from Ohio University, eat a ton of bagels and actually see Autumn again!

How do you think New York audiences will receive Turbulence!?

Molly: We hope our show can transcend coastal preferences and be as well-received in the theater capitol of the world, if not more beloved, than it was in Los Angeles. Because our show is feel-good, family-friendly and only an hour long, we think it can be like a chocolate cookie of a show instead of some of the more hardy and harder-to-swallow meals like the serious/dramatic/two+ hour shows. This show is fun, and we know people tend to need an escape from a scarily un-fun reality right now.

Chris: I think they will love it. Hey, it's a fast-paced, zany comedy with catchy synthpop tunes at an affordable ticket price. It's theater that a tourist can pop in and pop out of. Perfect for a family that can't afford the higher Broadway prices but still wants to experience a theater production in New York.

Robot Teammate's 2016 Fringe Show - poster by Dax Schaffer and Monica M. Magana

Have you had any interaction with New York improv theater companies yet? Have they offered you any tips or guidance?

Kat: We are performing at the New York Musical Improv Festival at the Magnet Theater on October 22nd with a really incredible team we met at West Coast Music Improv Festival earlier this year, American Immigrant. We are excited to see them and a bunch of talented musical improvisers while we are in town, and are reaching out to our friends in comedy for advice and support. I have to give a shout-out to my theater company buddies at the TEAM and Theatre for New Audiences who have been especially helpful so far!

Since winning a bunch of awards at the 2017 Fringe, what kind of interest has the show engendered and how has it benefited the company?

Chris: It has given us a chance to bring our show to the musical epicenter of the planet, so that's incredible. We hope to create lasting connections with theater communities out here while we're in the midst of the run.

Molly: It seems that successes come and go so quickly in Hollywood (or anywhere). We've enjoyed putting our laurels on our promotional materials, but it's a challenge to get our art in the right hands — to someone who could really make a difference for our creative careers. Mostly, the awards give us confidence to keep working toward our dreams and confirms that what we're doing is really resonating with our friends and fans.

Is anyone going to squeeze in some New York theater while you're there? If so, what do you want to see?

Chris: Yep! As a huge animation fanboy, I really just gotta see Anastasia. I love it too much to not. I would also love to take my shot at the Hamilton lottery to see the new cast (was lucky enough to see Lin, Leslie, Renee and the original cast two years ago). Most certainly I want to check out Sleep No More. Would love recommendations! What should we see?

Kat: My first goal is to get to the Hayden Planetarium and convince Neil deGrasse Tyson to come to our show. Second goal is supporting friends who are performing currently in the city. Third goal is exploring some immersive productions, new musical workshops and recommendations your readers leave us in the comments! Fourth is watching Broadway shows on tape at the New York Public Library.

Molly: We'd all die to see the Tony Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen, but we know we're not alone in that desire. We'll all definitely be visiting the TKTS line during our days off and drinking in whatever we can of your magical city. Hopefully this run of Turbulence! won't be Robot Teammate's last trip to New York together and we'll get to visit and see more shows as often as possible.

Turbulence! will play at various times from October 13-22 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street. Exact showtimes and tickets can be obtained by visiting the theater's web site.


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.


Is the Hollywood Fringe really ‘fringe'?.... by a Disheartened Fringe Participant

I wrote, directed, and performed in a show in the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, and I came away rather disheartened.
At first, I thought that this was completely my fault. I went straight to the drawing board to assess where I went wrong; marketing? Price? Budgeting? What was it that led me to have a rather unsuccesful brief run?
I'm not an egomaniac, but I am very confident in my abilities as an artist, and I strongly believe my product was of a high standard. I had industry professionals, some with decades of theater and acting experience under their belt, come and assess (brutally, honestly) my show. Yet all the feedback, and everyone who came to the show, was very positive…
In fact, people were really impressed. It was, according to many, the bravest and best original piece of theatre they had seen in a long time, and one of the best on offer at the festival (this also coming from other festival artitsts and theatre staff).
So, if the product was at a good standard, what happened?
Ticket sales were low. Very low… I mean, one evening, I had 6 people in the audience (including my usher, mother, and roommate).  Probably the hardest thing I've had to do in my career.
I had a pretty small budget, but I ran ads on the Fringe website, put flyers in all the places we could put flyers, and put the word out on social media and through all available channels. I followed the ‘marketing advice' completely.  Maybe I could have done better with marketing, I guess, but I don't think I did terribly either.
What I noticed was that all the shows with lines out doors, and coincidentally, all the shows that won awards, were artists returning with the same company and building off success of previous years. The ‘popular kids' of the fringe had an advantage and I guess, rightly so.
It just doesn't sit well with me that as I watched the same people getting up to accept awards, I couldn't help but feel that this establishment who was trying to be so ‘un-Hollywood' , was in fact, very ‘Hollywood'.  It was a glorified popularity contest. The best show was probably not going to the best show, but in fact, just the most popular show.
Doesn't this contradict what the term ‘fringe' means??...
In my experience, going to a "fringe" theatre festival is about going to the most obscure, international, and weird pieces of theatre. The more unknown the piece, the better. That's fringe. Not the piece that has a big budget because of success from last year's show. Those people should be working to get their pieces in a proper theatre season at a proper theatre and ‘graduating' to be the ‘adults' of the theatre world.
I had moderate ‘success'. I had an extension, producers award, and an audience critic award from an established (independent) review site. But to be honest, there were half a dozen awards at the ceremony that I, and others, thought I deserved at least a nomination for.
But given that the majority of my audience members were friends, collegues, connections, and people in my life, I was never going to scoop any of these awards. Again, I'm not looking for validation, but it's very unsatisfying as an artist to be so handicapped when it comes to recognition by your peers.
I was disheartened by the fact that you could have the most heartfelt, original piece of storytelling at the festival, yet you haven't got a chance of winning any of the awards, because you simply won't get the crowds. You will quite literally drown in the swamp that is Hollywood Fringe.
Does the festival need judges to go to each show to make it fair? Maybe.
Could I have done things better on my end? Of course.
Does the festival need to have a big think about supporting emerging, new, international artists? Absolutely.
I didn't feel a big sense of ‘community'. It felt like high school. The ‘cool kids' of returning years snubbed the new kids. The festival didn't really value the concept of originality or creativity from new practitioners.
Long story short, I wouldn't the Hollywood Fringe again, nor would I recomment it to any other practitioner.
I thought I was alone, but the more I voiced my concerns, the more I learned that others felt the same, and that other festivals around the world were a lot more in line with the ‘fringe' concept than the Hollywood festival…
Don't get me wrong, it's a big task to hold that many practitioners and run such a diverse and complex organisation, but the word ‘fringe' should certainly be omitted from their title unless some serious changes are made.
Yours Sincerely
A Disheartened Artist


THE FRINGE IS OVER! AND ... NO IT'S NOT

Fringe Fringe Fringe.

Fringe Fringe Fringe Fringe.

Fringe Fringe Fringe Fringe Fringe.

375 shows!  Ben Hill!  Matt Quinn!  Blah blah blah blah.

For the last week I've been in a secret bunker far far away from anything remotely resembling a Fringe show, trying to decompress.

Me, pre-Fringe

Yes, I set out as a young man on June 1st, wanting only to provide as many shows as I could the kind of coverage that I'd wanted (and rarely received) during my Fringescapades in 2013 and 2016.  A mere 3 weeks later, I was a grizzled and hardened old man, hobbling away like the Phantom of the Opera at the mere mention of the word ... "Fringe."

Me, as sleep-deprived Fringe Monster

FRINGE FANTASY

I actually had a Fringe wife, Alison.  We had three Fringe children, a Fringe Boy named Turbulence and two Fringe-lets, Cherry and Poppins, who had both male and female sex organs.  Everything was so great at first, and it felt like it was going to last forever (and I do mean For-----ever), but then she cheated on me with The Motherfucker with the Hat, and I cheated on her with Nicaea.  Then Turbulence ran off with all the prizes and Cherry and Poppins married each other (oh no!) and had their own children, Shakeslesque and Psychosical.  I was a Fringe Grandpa! - but they wanted nothing to do with me, just shaking their freakishly large organs and singing songs that all sounded vaguely familiar.  I caught up with Alison again at The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign, and it felt like we had gone back in time to the very beginning - oh no, that was Nicaea again.  Alison disappeared Under the Jello Mold, and I guess that was it.  I got the official kiss-off at Divorce, the hip-hop musical, where I saw her sneaking off with The Spidey Project.  "I'll show you," I muttered, and threw myself into The Pleasure Project.  That was great for around 45 minutes, but then it was all Chatter.  "Goodbye Alison," I said to The Tomb.  "We'll always have Mr. Marmalade."

Week into my Fringe Marriage. You can already see traces of Fringemania in me.

FRINGE REALITY - AND MORE REVIEWS

But lo and behold, the Fringe is not over!   No no no!  Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water - or whatever that metaphor is - FRINGE ENCORES is here!  And you should definitely check it out, because all those shows you did such a good job of missing the first time around, well, a lot of them are still here.  And you're not going to be so successful in missing them this time or my name isn't Fringestrodamus!  (Yeah, you should make reservations right now or my name isn't... that Fringe show about the Mob which I don't think was extended.)

And the fact is, I have unfinished Fringe business of my own - shows I saw and wanted to write about, but never got around to it.  (I blame Alison.)  So here are some shows - some got extensions, others didn't, all are worthy of mention.

Let me also mention that PSYCHOSICAL: An Asylum Cabaret has one additonal performance you can catch, on Friday July 28th at 10 pm at the Three Clubs. It's a wonderful show, surprisingly funny.  It's adeptly directed by Kristen Boule and excellently performed by Kate Bowman, Jessica J'aime, Reagan Osborne and all involved.  It may already be sold out by now, but give it a shot.  Hopefully it gets a longer run in the near future.

NICAEA by Tricia Aurand

If you just went by this play, you'd probably think that writer/director Tricia Aurand was around 110 years old, just sitting up in some attic somewhere reading all the books ever written about the History of Christianity.  "Oh, that Athanasius!" you can just hear her croaking, "you're such a card!  I just have to put you in scenes with Eusebius and Melecitus - they will kill at the Fringe!  And I'll throw in a little Hosius - who could resist that?"  Actually, though, looking at Tricia's bio, it appears that she's a fairly recent graduate of Azuza Pacific who has simply been gifted with an enormous supply of the nerd gene.  Why else write a "political thriller" - her description, not mine - about the Council at Nicea, where Christianity had to come up with a definitive log-line (How about: "You see, Jesus is like this fish out of water ... in fact,  he's a fish out of water who can walk on water") to satisfy the Emperor Constantine... and you're asleep.  In fact, there's probably a good play in this material, but this isn't it, at least not yet.  It's too small, too literal, not theatrical enough to bring this theological argument alive for a contemporary audience of any kind, much less a Fringe audience.  Also, Tricia, hire a director next time, because you accentuate the stuffiness of your speeches by having everyone stand around like statues while they're talking.  It's your job to get us as excited about this material as you are.  You've got Anna Chazelle - sister of LA LA LAND director Damien Chazelle - and she's pretty good doing the little you give her to do, as are Dontrell Brinson and Brendan Haley, but give them something to act!  It's a friggin' play, not a high school theological debate!  (And...you're asleep again.)  And get a better poster next time.  This one certainly doesn't shout "political thriller."  More like "And now I lay me down to sleep."

DOCTOR FAUSTUS BY CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE

Oh, I had such hopes for this!  Such high hopes!  Only to be so cruelly dashed and then set ablaze if "ablaze" meant really boring.  Billed as "A Punk re-imagining of an Elizabethan classic by the Knights of Allentown West" (huh? who?) this instead comes off as a bunch of kids doing silly shit while saying words that sound nice but have no particular meaning.  I had spoken with the star, Brando Cutts, at one of the Fringe parties, and he convinced me that he was gonna rock the house with this Dr. Faustus character, yeah!  He was gonna bring Christopher Marlowe himself - the badass of Elizabethan playmakers - back to blazing life.  (Where "blazing" was not something boring.)  And I pushed back on the man, I expressed my severe doubts that he could pull off this feat, since Marlowe is so oratorical and, yeah, kind of pompous too - see, I studied him at Oxford, and not the one in Mississippi y'all, because, Tricia Aurand, I have something of the nerd gene in me too.  And, let's face it, even little babies know what it means to make a Faustian bargain, I mean even Adam Sandler (the biggest baby of all) has gone there, so how was he going to  make that story new for us?  And Brando Cutts told me, "Just show up. You'll see."  And I showed up, and the first five minutes were fun, with Brando looking a bit like a young Mick Jagger, tossing aside all the books, because he already knew them backwards and forwards, and calling out to the devil to show him something he hadn't already seen.  And then the Devil showed up in the person of a young woman wearing a mask and... everything was set ablaze, if "ablaze" means the same old same old story was told, and I wished I had never spoken to Mr. Cutts.

JON ARMSTRONG: COMIC AMAZEMENT 

I saw this show by magician and comedian Jon Armstrong on a Saturday afternoon at a crappy venue (the McCadden Place Theatre - and yes, it is crappy) with 11 people in the house including the Hipster, when shows all up and down Santa Monica Boulevard were having to turn crowds away.  This got to Jon Armstrong - he made some huffy aside about having played to thousand seat houses in Vegas.  And I don't blame Mr. Armstrong for feeling this way, because he is good.  Very good.  His tricks are original and inventive - at least they seemed so to me, admittedly no expert when it comes to the magical arts - and he is FUNNY.  Very funny.  Not in that audience-pleasing "have you heard the one about" way, but quick and smart like a showboat gambler funny.  He's the kind of performer who's always thinking of a better way to put across his material, who doesn't rely on stale retreads of previous performances to make his point.  Why did this talented man have so few folks in the audience?  I have no idea, no more than I understand why Dr Faustus sold out all their shows.  Why was he at such a lousy venue?  I don't know - down on his luck?  Lousy management?  There's something a little bit unlikeable about Mr. Armstrong, who is tall and (as I said) smart in an aggressive way, like the quick-talking guy on the debate team who could make your girlfriend disappear.  But that's exactly what I liked about Mr Armstrong and his act - he was good, and he knew he was good, and he lets you know that he knows. The Fringe is mostly for oddballs and misfits, and that's not him.  The man has some mad skills.  Give him some bright lights and a big stage and an audience that wants to be entertained.

CHATTER by Natasha Lewin

This short play (25 minutes) won all sorts of awards - the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Scholarship Award, the Short + Sweet Award, maybe a few others too - which is amazing to me, because it's not very good.  In fact, it's pretty terrible.  The play is about a mixed-race young woman who is struggling with all the negative, self-destructive voices in her head, and I'm sure to the playwright I must sound just like one of those voices.  My apologies, Ms. Lewin - who seems like a wonderful person and compassionate teacher, from the few minutes we spoke - but your play is simply not dramatic.  The central character, Vanessa, is too passive, she's just a vehicle for bringing on one "negative" girl after another - "you're too fat," "you're too black," "you're not black enough," "you're not Jewish enough" - on and on and on, but to what end?  Choose one or two negative characters who come to the forefront and do battle with Vanessa - and then have her battle back.  That's a play.  Right now this is just a ploy, a way of making everyone like the main character and feel sorry for her.  So what?  You call that dealing with suicidal impulses?  Teen suicide is a plague, and we need plays that put the issues front and center so that kids can relate to them.  This is not that, however many awards you may win, or however many parents you get to support your venture.  As it happens, I have dealt with suicidal thoughts - and written about it in my memoir The 13th Boy - and I have lost friends to suicide.  I have also taught playwriting to high school kids, and I can tell you right now that I had five plays better than yours from a class of ten 14 year olds.  I'm sure you're a great teacher, but you're not even a passable playwright.  Do better.

BEST OF INK PRESENTS CHARLIE MOOSE MAKES HIS MOVE By Jessica Jill Turner

This is a difficult one for me to figure out.  It came with much ballyhoo, having been chosen as the best of the 23 plays by women playwrights in the Ink Fest, and it features terrific performances by Jessica Stadtlander (as an 11 year old boy) and Jessica J'aime (as the main character's memory of a hooker he loved).  It deals with a socially inept young boy (Stadtlander) whose only friend is an immobile black writer who is dying, and whose mother is admittedly sociopathic with nymphomaniacal tendencies.  Sounds like something cooked up by a modern-day Truman Capote, right?  I kept feeling like I should love it, and yet I didn't, because I didn't really see the point.  The dramatic point, that is.  I know that I keep going back to that, but it's not enough to be weird and outlandish, there has to be a dramatic question and something that keeps moving the story forward.  Again, it had all the elements of a series on Netflix or Amazon, but there you could go inside the head of the immobile writer, you could concoct storylines that dealt with the thoughts and feelings of the main characters.  Right now the most active character is the sociopathic mother, who is doing all she can to kill her son and run off with his homeroom teacher.  When she isn't putting her hand in file cabinets and purposely slamming the file drawer on it.  That's not enough to hold my attention - in fact, quite the opposite.  I can see this succeeding as a book or as a TV series, but it's definitely not a good play.

HELLO AGAIN! THE SONGS OF ALLAN SHERMAN

I first encountered Linden Waddell back at that same party where I met Brando Cutts.  Ms. Waddell was handing out bags of peanuts to promote her show, and I didn't get the connection between Allan Sherman and the nuts.  She later read my post expressing that and told me that Allan Sherman's third album was titled "My Son the Nut."  Aha.  Later on at that party, another Fringer had said to me, "Her show is never going to work, because she's got an operatic voice, and there's no way that's suitable to the ditties of Allan Sherman."  Well, surprise, surprise - it works perfectly!  Ms. Waddell does have a "big" voice - she describes herself as being like Ethel Merman - and God knows that Allan Sherman had a nasal voice, and that his songs are quite the opposite of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and other signatory Merman show tunes, but somehow that unexpected combination is what makes this so wonderful.  Oh, and the presence of Marjorie Poe, Ms. Waddell's accompanist, is priceless.  She looks like she should be playing the church organ at Episcopal services in Des Moines, but instead she's having the time of her life playing Allan Sherman's zany tunes.  Again, the two women together couldn't be less Jewish, and that ends up being a huge plus, as they discover sources of humor in the songs that I would never have expected.  The fact is that Ms. Waddell's gentile dignity lends an emotional element to Sherman's silliness that I hadn't thought possible, and she does so with such respect for and knowledge of Allan Sherman that it caused me to reconsider his work as something  more than just a relic of the early 1960's.  I hope that Ms. Waddell can extend her 55 minute show with another 15-20 minutes of material as funny as what she has now, and then watch out!  This show could work anywhere, and it really has unlimited potential to please audiences of any kind.

Finally, I don't get the Fringe's system for choosing its winners.  I only saw two cabarets, PSYCHOSICAL and SHAKESLESQUE: To Thine Own Cherry Be True.  The latter used a mash-up of Shakespeare plots and characters (sort of) to play out a scenario of gender roles and sexual orientation (sort of), while giving a huge number of performers the chance to whip their clothes off and do some burlesque (often quite sexy).  The singing was another mash-up of songs and styles, none of it very memorable, and all of it way too long and formless to be good cabaret.  PSYCHOSICAL was clearly and without any doubt the superior entertainment, and yet SHAKESLESQUE  won both Best Cabaret and Top of the Fringe.  To which I say: shame on you, Ben Hill.  In no universe is that true.

 


FRINGE BINGE 2: HERE'S TO EVANESCENCE!

So I was standing on line for the Men's room with longtime LA theater critic Don Shirley, and I asked him: "How many Fringe shows did you see?"  He gave me an incredulous look and said, "None."  I asked why not?  "Because it's all so evanescent."  All theater is evanescent, I said. "But it's just a few shows, then it's over.  What's the point?"

"You love theater, right?" I told him.  "You're missing some really good shows."

It's true, dear reader.  Netflix will still be there when you get back.  Fringe is a live festival.  It can't go on without you.

It's over now, except not completely - there are encore performances of many excellent shows.  Personally, I make a compact with all the shows I see that in exchange for a press pass, I will give them coverage.  And I follow through on this promise, unless I have nothing constructive to say.  Which is not the case for the following shows.

WE ARE NOT THESE HANDS by Sheila Callaghan

Okay, well, it is somewhat the case here.  This play is written in a very private language, very personal to the playwright, in which issues of sexual shame and freedom alternate with a video crawl about worker exploitation and other capitalist misdeeds.  What is the connection?  I don't know, and the playwright didn't give me enough to grab onto to spark any fruitful dialogue.  I do admire Ms. Callaghan's courage to put it all out there in raw form, but I think that her most powerful works still give us enough narrative to allow us to enter the world she has created and to care about what's going on.  That didn't happen for me here.  But actors Cecily Glouchevitch, Emily James and Albert Dayan are all wonderful (whatever they're doing), especially Dayan, who is simply a great comedic actor.

TALKING BLUES: Two One Acts by Cecilia Fairchild

Cecilia Fairchild writes beautiful lines, lines that lilt and lines that haunt, lines that reminded me of the songs of Lucinda Williams mixed with the plays of Sam Shepard about lost souls in the mythic west.  What she doesn't do yet is write haunting plays.  Fairchild describes these two plays as being about "the way memory fuses itself to us, no matter how far we think we've come."  But that's not a very dramatic idea, and both her plays suffer from a lack of dramatic stakes.  In both cases, the past is being rehashed to no particular purpose other than the fact it is haunting. She is blessed in the first play, Family Tradition, by great performances from her two actors, Claudia Elmore and Darrett Sanders, as a half-Native American daughter who is haunted by her abusive white father.  This is by far the better of the two plays, and there is some resonance here, a toxic bond that has spiritual depth and something to say about the American origin story.  But it's still not very dramatic and only succeeds because of Elmore's brilliance.  The second play, Best of my Love, follows the tried and true formula of divorced couples meeting at a social event (here it's a funeral) and rehashing old arguments as they try to figure out who they are to each other now.  The author plays the ex-wife, and she has a sexy stage presence until (ironically) she suddenly strips down to a bikini, assuming the form of her younger self.  It's a silly strategy, undercutting the seriousness of the author's intentions.

BREATHER by Marilyn Fu

Breather is a sweet and funny four-hander that starts with an intriguing idea and builds it into a play that may have a future.   The idea she builds on bears some resemblance to the romantic comedy The Night We Never Met, in which Matthew Broderick alternates occupancy of an apartment with Annabelle Scioria, except instead of alternating days and nights, these two sets of strangers alternate rental hours in a room on Hollywood Blvd.  Camille Mana and Jordan Bielsky ply the tourist trade on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as Princess Elsa and Zorro respectively and seek refuge in this room as each contemplates the future.  Mariah Bonner is studying Orgasmic Meditation with instructor Graham Sibley, who insists that they maintain a "professional relationship" even as he embarks on the stimulation of her clitoris.  The scenes are well-written and touching, but the event that finally brings two of these strangers together seems far-fetched.  At present the play ends at the most dramatic moment.  Hopefully the playwright will write the next scene sometime soon, then maybe we'll see Breather again in a commercial venue.

TRIPTYCH, a new play by Lee Wochner

Lee Wochner's fascinatingly nasty new play might also be titled, "Who Put the Trip in Triptych?"  It's a very trippy excursion into the contemporary clash of art and money, with money having all the fun at the expense of the poor artist.  The play features a balls-to-the-wall performance by Laura Buckles as an investment banker whose big gamble has finally paid off big-time, giving her free reign to make the rest of the world as miserable as she was while having doors slammed in her face.  Darla Bailing is also wonderful as Trudy, the struggling artist who may have finally found a patron.  I had problems with some of the play's narrative.  We're told that Trudy has never sold a single painting, and yet she is being given a one-woman show at a commercial gallery.  Sorry but that doesn't happen, no matter what "favors" she may be doing for the gallery owner.  Simply not believable, and the entire play really hinges on accepting that as fact.  It's also not believable that selling a painting for $700 would somehow lead to another sale for almost $30,000.  I also had question about the husband of Laura Buckles' character and what his feelings are about his wife's affairs - assumptions can be made, but there seems to be some room for filling in some of his blanks.  I hope Mr Wochner does some further development of his play, as his dialogue is first-rate, and his ending is very disturbing and relevant, if somewhat unearned.

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, Book by Dan Knighton, Score by Dan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn

I freely admit that I didn't have much hope for this production and would probably not have gone if one of the actors (Caitlin Gallogly) had not performed in one of my Fringe plays back in 2013.  After all, word of mouth hadn't been that great about the Broadway production some years ago, and it hasn't been revived all that much since.  Imagine my surprise then to find this such a delightful and engaging experience.  Congratulations must go to director Katharine McDonough for somehow finding a way to stage a large-scale spectacle of a musical on a postage-stamp-sized stage.  I know from what Caitlin told me that they didn't have much rehearsal time, yet Ms. McDonough (who also choreographed) keeps everything moving fluidly with style and grace.  Characters are fully-developed and I found myself caring about them, no matter how silly much of the story is and how mediocre the lyrics are.  Credit must go to the actors, all of whom are remarkably talented and up for the challenge.  The three principals are all excellent and entirely worthy of a far larger venue.   Caitlin is very effective and affecting in the female lead, Marguerite St. Just, who leaves her French lover Chauvelin -  the right hand man of Robespierre, leader of the French Revolution - for the British nobleman Percy Blakeney.   Stanton Morales is superb as Blakeney, who will soon secretly take up arms against France as The Scarlet Pimpernel; he has a lovely singing voice and a witty way about that can turn serious in a heartbeat.  He is matched in excellence, however, by Marc Ginsburg, who sings with power and masterful control, exuding star quality.  Cole Cuomo also shines in the dual roles of Ozzy (a member of the Pimpernel's gang) and Robespierre.  How Ms. McDonough was able to coax all these remarkable performers to bring their talents to the raggedy Underground Theatre is beyond me.  But I'm so glad she did, as this production was certainly one of the unexpected triumphs of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe.  Brava, Katharine McDonough!

 

 

 

 


FRINGE BINGE 1: GOING IT ALONE (Seven One-Person Shows)

Like a hard-core drunk coming off a massive bender, I am still whoozy and wobbly from the three weeks of Fringe.  Did I really see 50-odd shows - some odder than others?  Did I really turn around that time in Serial Killers to find the couple sitting behind me suddenly naked, as they vaulted past me, approaching the stage?  And while we're on the topic, there was a lot of nudity in the Fringe.  A lot more than I'd seen onstage in a while.  Or did I just imagine it?

(No I didn't.  I mean, there was one show, Naked Shorts, in which not only were all the actors naked, but the audience was required to strip down as well.  Somehow I missed that one, maybe because I'm not 25 anymore.  Also, the featured image is from Apartment 8, an immersive Fringe show I was never able to get a ticket for because the number of audience members was limited to how many could fit in a bathroom and watch a woman taking a bath.)

FRINGE SOLO SHOWS

There were by my count over 100 solo shows in the Fringe, on pretty much every conceivable subject.  There was even a show that was a send-up of one person shows - EASY TARGETS - and it was one of the highlights of Fringe.

Here are a few of the shows that I was able to catch up with.

INGERSOLL SPEAKS! by Ernest Kearney

This fascinating show about "America's greatest intellectual" and "greatest foe of religion" is obviously a labor of love for the loveable Ernest Kearney, who also portrays Robert Ingersoll.  Ingersoll, whose life spanned the latter two-thirds of the 19th century, was prophetic in his support of giving women the right to vote and in advocating for the equal rights of minorities; and Kearney completely captures that sense of the free-thinking philosopher who refuses to bow down to the prejudices and superstitions of his day.  But Kearney's poster for his show touts Ingersoll as "The Great Infidel" and "The Great Satan" for his vehement opposition of religious intolerance, and Kearney comes off as too nice a guy to earn such labels.  I would love to see more of the thundering orator displayed in his show - and maybe in the show's next incarnation, it will be.  In any case, I am grateful for this introduction to an outstanding and influential American who I was unaware of before Kearney's show.

BEHIND THE PULPIT by Noam Friedlander

Noam Friedlander opens her show about her childhood in London by confiding a conversation she had when she was grown up and feeling at loose ends.  The man she was speaking with told her that he felt the same way some years ago and was saved from despair by a wise rabbi he went to.  "Was his name Rabbi Friedlander?" she asked.  The man nodded.  "He's dead now," she told him, adding that the man had been her father.  Noam's one-person show is an intimate and intriguing look at what it's like to grow up "the child of a saint" who was also a highly imperfect father.  Noam's father had a close college friend who was a higher-up in Hugh Hefner's empire and who traveled to London to open up a British Playboy mansion.  This resulted in Noam and her family taking some visits to the mansion, which earned her father the nickname of "The Playboy Rabbi" and gave Noam some amusing stories to tell.  The only downside is that Noam is still reading her narrative from the page, which makes it less spontaneous and transfixing.  Once she's able to master her material's flow and relate more directly to the audience, she will have achieved something witty and wonderful.  (She could also use a few more slides to give her stories a visual dimension.)

MAGIC 8-BALL (My Life with Asperger's) by George Steeves

There were two one-man shows in the Fringe on the subject of living with this condition - the other was A PAIN IN MY ASPERGER'S by Jeremy Ebenstein - and I wasn't really planning to see either one.   Only because I'm wary of shows that have such specific agendas and that seem basically predictable - I'm attracted to experiences that will surprise me or at least keep me from getting too far ahead of them.  But Mr Steeves approached me personally and beseeched me to see his show, which I did - and I'm glad to have done so.  Contrary to the image of him in his show's poster - which I've posted above - George Steeves is not a wild and crazy guy.  In fact, his show could be sub-subtitled "I wish I was a wild and crazy guy but I have Asperger's."  Because Mr Steeves grew up obsessed with becoming a great entertainer, and he has all the attributes - good looks, a pleasant voice, a sharp mind and a good sense of humor - but Asperger's gives his voice and behavior a flat affect which prevents him from investing his performances with the passion and individuality necessary for commercial success.  It also prevents him from having the fulfilling love life he envisions, because what we find attractive in people is the way they respond to our cues, and people with Asperger's are locked out of that dialogue - or rather, locked inside themselves by their condition.  I never really grasped before how tragic that is, and Mr Steeves's show brought me to tears several times.  Not because he's filled with self-pity - he isn't.  He's grateful for being so high-functioning.  I'm grateful for having a more visceral under-standing of what it  means to have his condition.  One note - because a writer with Asperger's is still a writer and thus subject to criticism -  if you're going to call your show "Magic 8-Ball" then you need to incorporate that 8-ball into your finale rather than simply telling us how you've triumphed over adversity.  What does your Magic 8-Ball say?

TOUGH BROWN LEATHER by Tonya Jones

Tonya Jones has a great story to tell - that of being a little eight year old football-playing girl who thought she could take a hit with the best of them, until she was repeatedly raped by an uncle; something that she's spent her life coming to terms with.  But having a great story and being a great storyteller are two different things, and Tonya Jones is not there yet.  She has moments of greatness, as when she takes her time analyzing the rapes from many angles, and then analyzing her response to it, including the way it changed her behavior.  It's unnerving and highly unusual to dwell like that on something so disturbing, and it's very effective.  Then she launches into a desperate monologue of self-hatred, and we can feel the terrible ways in which her sense of self was wrenched from her body.  But this mixes uneasily with other stories of hers, acerbic stories about lovers who hurt her and jobs that didn't work out.  Tonya Jones bears a slight resemblance to Chris Rock, and there are times when her delivery resembles his too, in a good way.  At those moments it felt like she was finding her own voice, finding a way to talk about sexual abuse and her father's emotional abuse and the exploitation of women (especially black women) and still make us laugh.  Still make us feel okay about laughing.  That's the brilliance of Chris Rock, that he can talk about the most serious issues and the most frivolous and have us laugh equally at both, becuse he's in such control of his material.  Tonya Jones has not found this yet, she hasn't found that kind of control.  She's good now, but someday she may be great.

SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS: Is Asian the Mask We Choose Or The Mask We Are Given? by Paul Yen

I must confess that one of my personal blind spots is superheroes and superhero-related projects.  Yes, I watched "Superman" on TV as a kid - the old-fashioned black-and-white show featuring George Reeves.  Yes, I had a thing for Lois Lane and had fantasies of flying around with her in my arms.  And then I grew up and was more interested in the complexity of human behavior and the difficult development of the Self.  So when I encounter a presentation like Paul Yen's - which relies so heavily on superhero ideas and images - then I do my best to get past my own biases and try to experience the material on its own terms.  But I don't usually succeed, and I didn't in this case.  Mr Yen is handsome and charismatic, smart and articulate, and his subject matter - the ways in which Asians have been ignored, dismissed and short-changed by our society - is an important and interesting one.  But as soon as he began expressing it in terms of "How come there aren't Asian Superheroes?" and "What would an Asian Superhero look like?" and "What if Superman, Batman and Spiderman were Asian?" - well, my attention span just went out the window and nothing he said really made any impression on me.  I will say that the packed house at the Underground loved it and cheered frequently and hung on his every word.  But I couldn't have cared less.

CHEMO BARBIE: My Lady Bits' Journey Through Breast Cancer by Heather Keller

So this was another show that I had no intention of attending - another one of my blind spots is "inspiring stories of triumph," despite how much  money they make, because of how they typically follow a tried and true formula - but Heather Keller is a very persuasive person, and she broke down my resistance.  And Heather Keller proved to be funny and talented and able to summon up details about her battle with cancer - like the cold-capping routine that she had to do in order to keep her hair from falling out - which made her ordeal very real for the audience.  She was able to articulate the shock of dealing with cancer at such a young age (her 20s), while also making it okay for us to laugh and experience the various stages of her "journey."  In that way, yes, this is a very important story about how important it is to keep up a positive outlook and get support from your loved ones - in this case, Heather's husband, who was there for her big-time - in order to maximize your chances of suriviving a life-threatening illness.  Very inspiring - which, as I've said, is not really my kind of story.  Still, I'm very happy for Heather and for her lady bits.

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone 

I have truly saved the best for last.  There is actually no other one-person show in the Hollywood Fringe that even deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence - and yes, it is that good.  I wish I could embed the entire show on a link for you here, because it's the kind of good the people want to share right away, want their friends and family to see.  And also because it's not easy to describe what makes it so special.  It's not because the story in and of itself is so different from anything you may have heard before.  Rather, it's the way that it reminds you of so many other Hollywood stories, like Sunset Boulevard and A Star Is Born and a thousand others seen late at night on Turner Classic Movies.  Also the Nathaniel West novel The Day of the Locust - there was a strong link in tone and content to that, even though I don't think it was intentional.  There are several songs in the piece, and Ms. Hartstone has a pleasant voice, but not a particularly memorable one.  No, that's not what makes it great.  The piece is simply pitch-perfect.  That is, it does exactly what it sets out to do - to tell a Hollywood story of a loser who never lost her humanity - and it does so with just the right amount of wit and grace and humility.  In a more perfect world, this would run for several months and be as popular as Hamilton - though on a smaller scale and in a lower key.  But the pleasures of a beautifully-imagined and realized show like this are hard to describe and even more difficult to market.  "A young woman who loves Hollywood is driven to the brink by twists and turns of an unhappy fate" hardly seems calculated to have audiences turning out in droves.  But if you watch closely enough, you will see Ms. Hartstone walking a tightrope as dangerous as anything Phillippe Petit ever crossed, and doing so with great ease.  Yes, she does that nearly impossible thing, create a new Hollywood myth out of pieces of a forgotten past.  I salute you, Joanne Hartstone, for the delicacy and toughness of your creation.  I just wish that everyone could get to see it.

 

 


The Winners of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival

The 8th Annual Hollywood Fringe Festival concluded last night with its annual Award Ceremony and Closing Night Party. Over 800 people attended the Award Ceremony, which took place at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre.
The Fringe community of participants and attendees voted for all Freak Awards winners. Winners include:
Top of the Fringe: Shakeslesque (To Thine Own Cherry Be True)
International: Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII
Fringe First (World Premiere): Turbulence!
Cabaret & Variety: Shakeslesque (To Thine Own Cherry Be True)
Comedy: Easy Targets
Dance & Physical Theatre: Definition of Man
Ensemble Theatre: The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Musicals and Operas: Turbulence!
Solo Performance: Under the Jello Mold
Immersive Theatre: A(partment 8)

SPONSORED AWARDS:

ShoWorks Don't Wait. Create! Award: Chimpskin
The Screamiest: A(partment 8)
The Spirit of the Fringe, Never in a Box Award: TOYS
The Duende Distinction: Christina Evans – Choreography - TOYS
Tip Your 2Cents Award for Distinctive Voices: Chimpskin
The Ripest Show: Definition of Man
A Little New Music Award for Outstanding Songwriting: Turbulence!
Larry Cornwall Award: Magic 8 Ball (My Life with Asperger's)
Rogue Machine's “Premiere” Award: Urban Unrest – Urban Theatre Movement
Beyond Bechtel-Wallace Award: Thanksgiving
Diversity in American Theatre Award: In the Valley of The Shadow
Soaring Solo Artist Award: Magic 8 Ball (My Life with Asperger's)
The Inkwell Playwright's Promise Award: In the Valley of The Shadow
Short and Sweet Award: CHATTER
O-Face Award for Orgasmic Achievement (Most Orgasmic Performance): Yozmit Walker - Do You: Migration of the Monarchs
Best Fringe Flyer: An Evening With John Wilkes Booth
The Unleashed Award: Thanksgiving
The LAFPI Most Wanted Award:
Actors Company, Art of Acting Studio, Assistance League Playhouse, Epiphany Space, Complex Theatres, Hudson Theatres, Los Angeles LGBT Center, Rogue Machine @ MET Theatre, studio/stage, The Loft, Theatre of NOTE, Three Clubs, Thymele Arts, Urban Social House, The New Collective

THE ENCORE! PRODUCERS AWARD:

Complex TheatresVideo Games, Narcissus and Echo, Trixie: The Musical, Human Hothouse: The Aftershow, 13th Grade, Desert Warrior, Claim Jumper, Even If It's Wrong, Toys, Confessions of an Arab Woman, Incantesimo, Mistero Buffo, Too Many Hitlers, Ripley's Dystopia, Broke and Ugly, Mary's Medicine, Under the Jello Mold, Slashed, An Evening with John Wilkes Booth, Do You. Migration of the Monarchs
Lounge TheatreBitch Brow, I'm Too Fat For This Show, Just Like Life, NICAEA, Sapo Cancionero: Live Your Heart Out, Thanksgiving, The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign, Transmission – A One Tran Story
Sacred Fools TheatreQuantum Entanglement, Bono & the Edge Waiting for Godomino's, Easy Targets, Definition of Man, Divorce: The Hip Hop Musical, The Joe & Joshua Show!, Why We Become Witches, Kinsherf's Coat, A Harmony Boy's Christmas, Charlie Moose Makes His Move, 12 Bars, Urban Theatre Movement presents: Urban Unrest, The King's Language, High Rise, Orange Mango Cabaret
Three ClubsBuffy Kills Edward, Shakespeare and Chill, Hot Dates, Legends of the Hidden Three Clubs, Psychosical, Nights at the Algonquin Round Table
Studio/StageBlamed: An Established Fiction, Nothing Bad: A Werewolf Rock Musical, Here Comes Rutherford, Herpes: A Love Story, The Tempest: All Women Cast, So You Want to be a Vampire, The Spidey Project, Three Can Keep A Secret, MEXISTANI! Growing up Mexican and Pakistani in America, Gamers
The New CollectiveJust Sayin, Got A Minute, I Do, Do You?, Life... Death... and Entertainment
Actors CompanyA Void, Bravo 25, Dead Boys, Dying City, missmatch, Pagliaccis, Songs of the Fall, The Complete History of Drag in a Few Mo-mo, Trump in Space
Asylum6 Figures, 86'd, Andy: The Red Nosed Warhola, CHATTER, Cheek (and other stories), Chemo Barbie, CringeFest: An Uncomfortable Anthology, Devadasi, A Story of Sex, Power and Devotion, Hello Again! The Songs of Allan Sherman, L.A. Homebody/ The Anxiety Cure, Just Old Woman from Old Country, Save Me a Spot!, Scarlet Pimpernel, SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS, Secure Storage, SNATCHED…Stories From Down There, Solomon: King Poet &, Lover – A Tale of One Man & 700 Wives, Space or The Number of Nothing, Terror on The High Seas, The Amitycode, The Brick: A One Man Musical, The Motherfucker With The Hat, The Rise and Fall of Dracula, The Sacred Beasts, The Second Coming of Klaus Kinski, This Our Now, Two Motherfuckers on a Ledge, Willy's Lil Virgin Queen


What To Do About Trump? Laugh or Cry? 7 Fringe Shows Have an Answer

Donald Trump (Harry S. Murphy) and Barrack Obama (Joshua Wolf Coleman) in Ray Richmond's play Transition.

Donald Trump has been ridiculed for years. He is practically a caricature onto himself – like the most extreme example of the Ugly American come to life. We have seen President Obama's takedown of Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner, and Alec Baldwin's broad version of him on SNL – but since November 8, 2016, many of us haven't been laughing anymore.

Several shows at this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival were written as a cathartic release for artists who felt frustrated and depressed when Trump surprised us all and won.

Each show has different ways of satirizing the Trump phenomenon, and a few of them, like Too Many Hitlers or: The Decoy Decameron, were written long before the election – but all of them mock the powerful.

While they might differ on underlying themes or tone, the creators of each show say getting laughs is more important than making political statements. These are not grim thought pieces.

Satire uses ridicule and exaggeration to poke fun at our leaders, thus (hopefully) robbing them of some of their power. But when Trump is already so ridiculous and outlandish, won't even the most cartoonish and exaggerated version of him pale in comparison to the real one? And if anyone is laughing, so what? Ridicule hasn't exactly stopped him before.

Rick Cipes, who wrote and stars in Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical, believes that an artist can comment on an already absurd Trump administration by being even more absurd.

"In Zombie Clown Trump, Sean Spicer is now played by a Sesame Street Puppet named Sean Sphincter, Melania Trump is now "Barbania" Trump and played by a Barbie doll, and Trump himself isn't only a clown, but a zombie clown who has triggered a world wide zombie apocalypse," he says.

Seeing an excerpt from the show at the Fringe Cabaret, I find the character more menacing than funny, and don't want to get too close to him. But clowns have always scared the shit out of me, even before Pennywise from It and Trump came along.

Cipes is a former journalist, and years ago he wrote an article called Trump du Soleil predicting that Trump's fifteen minutes of fame were nearly up – but as he says, seeing as how they aren't up quite yet...he still believes a combination of different forces, including ridicule and laughter, can help bring the man down.

He felt powerless after the election, but writing the show helped Cipes realize that the world won't end because of one creepy clown. The song that plays as the audience exits his show echoes includes this thought.

Transition by first-time playwright Ray Richmond approaches Trump differently than Zombie Clown Trump, but it is no less of an attack on him. President Barrack Obama and Donald Trump met in the White House 36 hours after the election and details about what happened during that meeting are still sketchy.

Transition imagines this encounter between two men who are polar opposites; Trump, loud and possessing an oversized ego, versus Obama, erudite and professorial. The media, with a bizarre sense of relief, reported at the time that the meeting had gone well (Obama has given hints in recent interviews that this was not the case.)

That post-meeting sense of relief didn't last long, not in reality or in this play. "Trump is only influenced by what shiny object is front of him and then 30 minutes later, it's something else." Richmond says. "Obama's optimism that he could influence Trump is lost when he realizes this guy really is a piece of shit, he really is an idiot."

Richmond, who like Cipes, has a background in journalism, wrote the original script in a two-week frenzy after the election. He says he didn't want just another takedown of the boorish image of Trump, or some kind of Saturday Night Live spin-off.

"We really wanted him to be taken seriously on some level," Richmond says, so Harry S. Murphy, who plays Trumps, dialed down his performance since the original run at the Lounge Theatre earlier this year. It was little too over the top before, Richmond says, and what we see now is scarier, even grim, but there are certainly comic flourishes.

"Trump is ignorant, but he's not stupid. He understands combat, verbal combat, and he understands winning. We think it's scarier if you take some of what he's saying and it makes sense and is intelligent," Richmond says.

Transition does an excellent of building tension – before deflating it with a well-timed joke, only to build it up again. One can only wonder how much this awkward encounter resembles what really happened in that room.

Richmond is not interested in, as he says, being Switzerland – taking some middle ground or balanced approach. For him, this is no time to be in the middle since he considers the election of Trump the scariest thing to happen to this country in years, rivaled only by cataclysmic events like 9/11.

"No, I really don't believe satire can really begin to change people's minds and hearts, I wish it could," he says. "Unfortunately, satire is constructed and almost exclusively supported by intelligent people. Trump's supporters are best in denial or living in ignorance. They are not people who appreciate satire – they'd just call it leftist crap, they'd say you liberals! They don't understand cleverness or irony or truth in humor, it's all lost on them."

In that, he is like Cipes who when asked if he wants to spark an awakening in people, says says he has no intention of doing that – he wants to preach to the choir, and alleviate their fears with a night of humor.

Trump may not have created the intense divisions in this country, but he certainly knew how to exploit them. Plato said we laugh at other people so we can feel superior to them, and so much of modern satire comes down to pointing at those idiots over there, but not implicating ourselves. The Rising and Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy couldn't be more different tonally – but their creators are alike in that they turn the lens on themselves as well.

"Jonathan Swift said satire is putting a mirror in front of you and looking at the world, except you're not in the picture" says Armen Pandola, the creator of The Rising. He laughs, and says "I try to do it and include myself in the picture."

He does believe it is possible to reach beyond the liberal bubble and doesn't want to be polemical at all. The Rising is really skewering social media, which the Trump campaign used so successfully against Hillary Clinton, and we are all a part of that world.

We talk about The Rising a few days before a gunman attempts to assassinate several G.O.P. congressmen practicing baseball. The play is about a shadowy revolutionary group that starts randomly killing one politician every day, but government insists they don't exist and that these reports are fake news. But the bodies keep falling.

"Hey, there's somebody being killed every minute, some of them are bound to politicians," says one character. The play is set in 2033, but it could happening five minutes from now, or as it's poster art says, in a world that is just an explosion away.

The title of course comes from that old Quaker tradition of a community coming together to raise a barn. "The idea of The Rising is that it's a community of people looking to change and build something, but of course the methods they use are not good. They're killing people, and I don't hide the consequences of that" Pandola says.

People are moving further into their own respective camps, and Pandola wants to show this highlight these divisions by making them even more extreme, showing us where we might be headed.

Gillian Belllinger, Landon Kirksey and Kevin Richards in Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy

Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy is a parody musical set 400 years in the future. It follows the adventures of Captain Natasha Trump, the great great great great granddaughter of Donald Trump, who has destroyed the planet leaving humans to find a new one.

The show's co-creators Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey both hail from that strange, alternative universe called Texas. They are also huge science fiction fans, and they use Star Trek as the main inspiration – always in an attempt to be as overtly silly as possible.

"One of the things I love about sci-fi is that it gives us a lens to talk about things that are complicated but gives us the space, pun intended, to do so in a way that is less emotional and close." says Bellinger. This is exactly what Gene Roddenberry did on the original Star Trek – he created a show where unsettling and even taboo subjects could be discussed, cause, hey who doesn't like space? Or for that matter, science fiction parody musicals?

Early drafts did attack all those idiots over there, but after staged readings Bellinger and Kirksey got notes saying you need to point a finger at everybody, so they wrote jokes at their own expense.

"We didn't want to be just lopsided and obviously are political beliefs are very apparent, but it really is the polarization of this thing that is the problem, so where you shine a light on that you become more aware...of...how can I affect change by coming together as opposed to dividing," says Kirksey.

Another division I find is that many people don't want to laugh about Trump, or even think about him. When I tell a friend at Fringe Central that I am writing a piece about satire on Trump, he shakes his head and says, "I'm tired of hearing about him."

Jon Jacobs in Dreams in Overdrive

Dreams in Overdrive is a solo show that briefly deals with Trump, and it's creator Job Jacobs echoes this thought when he says, "I've seen one other show that included a little of political Trump humor, and I found myself completely turned off. It kind of makes me nervous for my audience. Do we really even want to laugh about Trump? Or would we rather just completely ignore his existence? Since Trump is already so absurd, any attempt at making fun of him also just makes me sick."

Steven Benaquist, writer and one of the performers of Too Many Hitlers

Which brings us to everyone's favorite punchline, Adolph Hitler. Too Many Hitlers is a farce about one of the most evil men who ever lived.

Nine of Hitler's decoys – one of which may be the real Fuhrer--are hiding in a bunker in Berlin during the closing days of World War II. The sight of multiple Hitlers on stage is funny, especially when they break into a song and dance number, or do an extended bit of dialogue taken entirely from the titles of Sylvester Stallone movies.

The song Nazi Me is Nazi You is funny too – a fatherly Hitler decoy is explaining to a more junior member that the essence of being a Nazi is what you are not...you're not old or weak or a cripple or black or jewish or whatever. This is when the laughter starts to sting cause now you've been tricked into laughing at something that is inherently not funny.

The humor is obviously very dark, and after testing the show against audience reactions, Steven Benaquist, who performs in and wrote the show, lightened some of it's aspects. But he stands by the dark humor of the piece, even if some audience member might be put off by the tone.

"The reason why some people don't like it is late in the show they grow attached to these Hitler decoys and they don't want to be reminded that they were fucking racists, they hated the jews and I don't want them to forget it," Benaquist says. He wants people to laugh, but also remember that the Nazis were and are evil.

Andra Moldav and Kate Rappoport in How to Love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism.

If Too Many Hitlers is a farce that wants to remind you of the past, How To love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism imagines a worst case future scenario; Trump is Putin's puppet and we have been annexed by the Russians.

The scene is set by loud Russian rock music, cold war era propaganda films and a complimentary shot of Vodka. Several people are shot. The audience is thankfully spared.

Kate Rappoport was born in Poland and Andra Moldav in Romania, but both moved to America when they were still children. The show is partly based on conversations about their experiences growing up in Eastern Europe, and how their grandmothers had such a negative outlook on the world. Originally a four-minute short they created with their sketch group Femmebot PhD, they expanded it after the election into a holiday show they called The Last American Christmas.

How to Love Your Dictator takes the outlook of growing up in an oppressive culture where you don't have freedom of speech, and cannot make fun of political figures. It plays like an episode of Access Hollywood or TMZ, only hosted by two depressive Russian ladies. They offer Americans helpful tips on living under a dictatorship. "Thank you for spending your last free days with us," they cheerfully tell the audience near the show's end.

""I just feel that in American society, satire and being able to express what makes you laugh is so entrenched in our society that it's funny that I don't even think about it too much or as some dangerous political statement because I know I have the freedom to do that." says Rappoport.

"We as Americans are used to laughing at people that are in power, and it's really cool that we are allowed to do that," she says. "It's crazy to think in other countries people can't laugh at what's going on cause when they do, it creates incredible changes in society."

So can we laugh Trump out of office? Of course not, but as Benaquist says, condemning mockery as useless is itself useless. Cipes still believes in the power of laughter because, as he puts it, Trump is a bully and bullies hate to be taunted – it throws them off their game. Authoritarian regimes want to create a culture of fear--but if if you ridicule the powerful, and take down the image of the glorious leader, perhaps you are one step closer to changing things. But first you have to laugh.


The Critics and Audience Choice Awards of Better Lemons

As of this email, the critics and the audiences have spoken, resulting in more then 50 Hollywood Fringe productions receiving a Sweet #LemonMeter rating and 3 Fringe productions have received #DoubleSweet ratings (both critics and audience members agreeing on a sweet production).
The #LemonMeter ratings are based on reviews and as of today we have received over 1400 reviews.
It takes three reviews from critics or three reviews from the audience to generate a #LemonMeter rating.
To see the reviews of your show, find your page on Better Lemons by typing in the search box your show title. If you know of any reviews from critics that are missing, please let us know. Send the links with the name of each critic to [email protected]
The Better Lemons Awards, Critics' Choice and Audience Choice, will be issued on Wednesday the 28th, based on the reviews.
In addition to sending us any reviews from critics, you still have time to appeal to your audience and ask them to post a review on your page on Better Lemons. You can email them your Better Lemons show page link, and you can share this on your social media pages, or ask them directly via the Fringe site to copy and paste over their reviews.
Better Lemons supports the artists, by aggregating reviews, and awarding #LemonMeter ratings that range from sweet to sour. Better Lemons was at the Fringe every day and at every venue, talking to audience members and encouraging them to review shows. But with 100s of productions and thousands of audience members, we need your help in encouraging the audience to speak up.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Enci
Enci Box
Publisher


Hollywood Fringe - Week 2

From the first Fringe previews, I have been going to every single Fringe theater to talk to audience members about Better Lemons and the #LemonMeter, encouraging them to leave a review of shows they have seen. We currently have 1375 reviews listed (from critics and from audience members) and it's nice to see over 40 #Sweet #LemonMeter ratings. We also have 2 shows that received #DoubleSweet ratings which occur when the critics and the audience both award #Sweet ratings.

Congrats to all who worked very hard to get critics out to their show and who got audience members to leave reviews of their show.

Since my last post, I have seen the following shows:

THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE
HIGH RISE
TRANSMISSION: A ONE TRAN SHOW
TALKING WITH ANGELS: BUDAPEST, 1943
PENETRATION
BLAMED: AN ESTABLISHED FICTION
THE AMITYCODE
LADIES IN WAITING: THE JUDGEMENT OF HENRY VIII

And of this list, here are the shows that I really enjoyed:

High Rise was a real Tour de Force show written and performed by the very talented Cameron Jones. In 30 minutes he took us on a journey of a real estate agent, Henry Lewis, who started small to "become somebody", and who had to start anew after the market crash. The entire show is extremely physical and Cameron incorporates elements of mask, mime, Commedia dell'arte, Buffon and physical forms of theatre. And the ending was a beautiful surprise. It is a must see at the Fringe! Two more performances: Friday at 5pm and Saturday at 3:30 pm.

There's No Place Like is performed by two talented actors from the UK, both of whom, plus the director, I'm hosting at my house. I love watching international performances! The acting style is different, as is the writing and the stories. And I loved this show! As an immigrant of two countries since the age of 10, it is very difficult to describe what it feels like to be home at a country that you weren't born in and at the same time longing for your father land. And this play did a wonderful job of just that. How does one feel when one is an immigrant? Why do people create a little village in their communities instead of going home to their country of origin? How does it feel when one goes back "home" and what is "home" anyways? What does it mean and where is it? These are questions that I always ask myself and this play (wonderfully written by Lilac Yosiphon, performed by her and talented Sam Elwin, and beautifully directed by Marianne Mayer and Mike Cole) answer these questions and more. Go and see their last performance at the Underground Theatre tonight at 10!

Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII (the first show to receive a #DoubleSweet rating) is another international play that I enjoyed not only for the topic but also for the great performances and the creative directing and use of space. The playbill had a family tree on it which was super helpful to understand the timeline and the relationship of the women with Henry VIII. See this show if you can! One performance left on Saturday at 4pm at the Stephany Feury Studio Theatre.

Transmission - A One Tran Show was performed by soft spoken Jade Beauvoir, who was born a woman trapped in a man's body. She meditated, she sang, she showed us slides and videos to make us try to understand what being transgender feels like. She pulled us into her story like a gentle lullaby and I walked away smarter then when I entered the theatre. And hat off to her parents! Art can teach us so much! Even if this issue doesn't seem interesting to you, you should give it a try. Only one show left on Friday at 11:45pm at the Lounge Theatre.

The Amighty Code I caught late at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre right after Ladies in Waiting and I was pleasantly surprised. I wan't going to see this show because I wanted to catch something else on Santa Monica Blvd. but I didn't want to hassle with parking again, so I decided to give this show a try and I'm glad I did. Clever writing and great acting, and lots of humor, the story drew me in and a week later I'm still thinking about it. The ending was disappointing for me only because I wanted Pete, the engineer, to make a choice that would have been against our human nature. Only two more performances left: Friday at 10pm and Saturday at 7:30pm at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre.


Voices from the Fringe: Ross Gosla, Writer/Performer of ‘Desert Warrior'

In Desert Warrior, Fringe newbie Ross Gosla tells a deeply personal story about his involvement in the controversial short film Innocence of Muslims and how it fueled the fires that helped to sabotage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. I thought that Gosla's intriguing tale required further elaboration, so he was kind enough to participate in a “Voices from the Fringe” interview with me.

Tell us a bit about the show. How does a boy on his way to becoming a Jedi figure into a story about the Benghazi and email scandals that helped to doom Clinton?
Ha! I can see how that's a head scratcher. It's been a long time coming. The piece itself was developed over two and a half years. It's an autobiographical tale about my involvement in the most controversial film of the decade. I'll get to that in a sec...

I've always loved Star Wars. There's a connection between me wanting to be a Jedi as a kid and then pursuing an acting career. I'm sure a lot of other artists can relate. But in my pursuit of my career and ultimately wanting to play in the Star Wars universe, I got caught up in the film that was initially blamed for 9/11, and the 2012 Benghazi embassy attacks, which was the impetus for the probe into Secretary Clinton's email server and ended up being a crucial part of why she lost the Election.

There seems to be more here than what's going on in the synopsis. Can you elaborate?
Yes, absolutely. The piece revolves around my involvement in the film Innocence of Muslims — how I got involved, the making of it, and the aftermath...but it's all told from my perspective. For the play, the director David Beatty and I chose to stage it a a Jedi Trial to determine if my artistic path is one of the Jedi or one of the Sith. During the trial, I enter what we call "shadows"- a set of memories — to tell the story. We weave thre separate storylines together: the story of Innocence of Muslims a story of a hunting trip I took as a kid, and my own experience auditioning for Star Wars Episode 7.

What was your inspiration for the piece?
I pull directly from personal experience. It's all very intimate, exposing...and drawn from the soul.

I started working on this almost three years ago in acting class with a series of exercises called "personal monologues”. My acting coach, Mark McPherson, pointed out that these stories would make a fascinating and unique one-man show. I'm a bit of a procrastinator, so it took me some time to take the note. When I finally started putting it all together, everything fell into place.

How does the controversial short film Innocence of Muslims fit into the story?
It's at the forefront. I wanted to shed light on my experience, show people what really happened...and why us actors stuck through it.

I've read that you play more than a dozen characters in the piece. How do you and (director) David Beatty keep them distinct and separate?
Yeah, it's a whirlwind. Each character has a specific gesture, physicality, and voice, and it was a matter of drilling the characters. David and I are part of the same acting studio (Studio 24/7) so I took these characters to class a few times, wrote the names on index cards and would improv with them, jumping around every time a new one was called out. It really helped in distinguishing one from another. David did a stellar job at keeping me on point with them as well as the transitioning that happens.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the ‘Desert Warrior'?
People make mistakes — huge ones. Oftentimes, self-forgiveness is the hardest. But it's necessary to forgive yourself in order to find total closure...and not to beat yourself up over the past.

What makes Desert Warrior a piece that fits within the Fringe culture?
Desert Warrior is raw, truthful and simple. Exactly what Fringe is about.

Is this your first Fringe production? What do you think of the experience?
This is indeed my first Fringe and I have had an absolute blast. Received nothing but love and support from Fringe staff. Monica, my venue manager at the Complex, is a sweetheart who cares so much about the shows under her roof. The Fringe's artistic community is simply the best.

Since Fringe is a collaboration, what other productions would you recommend?
Gah! So many! Mungo!, Under the Jello Mold, Claim Jumper, Naricussus and Echo, Slashed, Mary's Medicine, Human Hothouse: The Aftershow, Incantesimo and so many more. I've seen so much awesome work the past month. It's been artistically rejuvenating and inspiring.

There are two more opportunities to see Desert WarriorFriday, June 23 at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 24 at 9:30 p.m. It plays at the Shepard Studio Theatre at the Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Boulevard. Tickets can be obtained on the Fringe site.