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.


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.