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.


THIS JAM-PACKED CRAZY WEEK, PART II: THE FRINGE APOCALYPSE!!!

On a recent Thursday, a few days before the 2017 Fringe shows began previewing, I squeezed my Hipster self into a jam-packed Cellar 43 on Cahuenga.  This was a party in the series of parties that marks the Fringe season, but it was my first experience of this year's Hollywood Fringers, and a lively group it was.  I've been a participant in two Fringes myself as a playwright, but this was a larger and more frenetic gathering than the ones I remembered.

I soon ran into Matt Quinn, the producer of the Asylum series of Fringe shows, and he provided me with his own insight into this year's Fringe.

"It's crazy this year, just crazy.  I don't know what happened, but there's a frantic end-of-times quality to people's need to express themselves right now.  I don't know if it's a Trump thing or what, but it's like all these people seem to feel like the apocalypse could be right around the corner, so what's the use of waiting 'til next year?  The result is, there's more than twice as many Fringers this year than ever before, and there's something like 30 new musicals.  I've never been so busy."

Matt Quinn, King of the Asylum Apocalypse, with his Queen

Actually there's more like 40 new musicals being presented.  And 375 productions overall.  Yes, that's right, 375 productions!  Most being done for no more than 3 or 4 times.  In a city where traffic jams and parking are already a nightmare, that may indeed qualify as an apocalypse, if not the apocalypse.

I spoke to many people that night, including a lady who was giving out bags of peanuts to promote her performance of Allan Sherman's songs - she and I were the only ones there who knew who Allan Sherman was ("Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder"? No?) but I still didn't get the connection with peanuts.  And countless hopeful aspiring artists - literally, I completely lost count - all of whose shows I promised to attend. And I meant it.

AND WE'RE OFF!

I started off fast, going to two shows on the first night - TOO MANY HITLERS and MR. MARMALADE.  I was actually intending to see "Doctor Faustus," as its star, Brando Cutts, was one of the artists I had spoken to at the party.  But his show started at 11 pm, and I couldn't quite see myself soaking in Christopher Marlowe's heroic verse play at that hour, no matter how condensed it was.  I must admit that I faltered later in the week, as life and lack of sleep caught up with my best intentions, and traffic was indeed a nightmare, preventing me from getting to the early shows on time.  But here we are, doing the best we can to make you aware of the often-amazing work going on all around you.  Here's a roundup of five shows, with many more to come.  Yes, miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep...as I finish writing this at 5:38 in the morning.

TOO MANY HITLERS; or THE DECOY DECAMERON by Steven Benaquist, directed by Benaquist and Joe Wagner

When was it exactly that Hitler became funny?  Was it when Charlie Chaplin lampooned him in The Great Dictator or when Mel Brooks lampooned all the Nazis in Springtime for Hitler?  To give some perspective, I was horrified the first time I saw both in the late '60s.  I am a very secular Jew, but Hitler and his hench-people attempted to wipe out my people, and that's never struck me as very funny.  By the early 1970s I had become hip to the brilliance of both - Chaplin made his movie without knowing about the extermination camps, and Mel Brooks is just the sharpest and fastest comic mind we've ever had.  But a part of me still stands with Mike Nichols, who came to the US from Germany when he was four and would never direct any play or movie with a Holocaust theme.  That's more severe than me - I've actually written a play with that theme (The Kitchen Girl), and I feel like the emotional after-effects of this cataclysmic event are important to write about.  The pop culture aspect, though, not so much.  And there's so much of it!  So much!

Too Many Hitlers presents us with the comedy spectacle of all Hitler's decoys congregating in his bunker on the last night of WWII on the orders of the Fuhrer himself.  The first 10 or 15 minutes are funny, as two very stubborn decoys refuse to submit to the other, each insisting that he and he alone is the real Adolf.  One of them even has his own decoy, who freely admits he's a decoy and pledges to lay down his life in the service of the other decoy.  But then the decoys keep coming - nine of them in all, with one woman secretary trying to keep some sense of order (I guess that's what she was doing - Amber Kenny does a nice job with the role, but she wasn't given a central enough role to play).  While the sight of nine white guys with Hitler haircuts and moustaches cluttered together on a small stage may sound funny, it actually gets kind of depressing.  Apparently these decoys are being given their walking papers, as the war is ending and the Fuhrer no longer needs them.  Okay, but then why not let us see that?  Why not dramatize this moment between the real Hitler and the fake Hitlers, which would give the performance some kind of point and bring in a few genuine surprises.  Instead it meanders from one Hitler joke to another, while all these decoys celebrate together like the cast of a play that's just closed.  There are several funny performers - Matt Champagne and Charlie Farrel stood out for me - and of course my long-lost relative, Cameron Fife - but the the reality of the Holocaust just gets lost here, and we end up in a bad vaudeville sketch that feels like a joke without a punchline.  And one that goes on for 40 minutes too long.  (But you hang in there, Cameron!  Momo says hi.)

MR. MARMALADE by Noah Haidle, Directed by Dennis Neal

I had been hearing about Mr. Marmalade for a few years now, and so I was glad for the chance to catch it at Sacred Fools at 10:30 at night - probably the perfect time to see this funny and disturbed play.  First off, let me say that the entire cast is excellent, led by Melody Ricketts, playing four year old Lucy who is wise beyond her years and haunted by dreams both horrifying and terrifying, that mimic adult tragedies but that only children can see.  Melody is innocent and jaded in equal measure and in just the right ways.   Miles Berman is also a standout as Larry, Lucy's playmate, who is also plagued by scary imaginary characters and by real suicidal urges as well. Paul Major is also very good as Mr. Marmalade, Lucy's imaginary businessman-friend, who is presumably a replacement for her father, not mentioned in the play.  While there are many fiendishly funny twists and turns, the overall effect is a sad one.  Is it an indictment of a sick and twisted society or is it about childhood and all the fears and terrors that reside there?  Or both?

Go see the play and decide.

JUST OLD WOMAN FROM OLD COUNTRY by Trina Shpur, Directed by Trina and Patrick Williams

Her father died doing this leap, but at least the vodka bottle didn't break

I watched this very funny one woman show - or is it a takeoff on a one woman show? - with a sold-out house of enthusiastic fans, who giggled and howled at every deadpan-delivered "joke."  The conceit here is that Baba Barraboulya (played by Trina Shpur) has come over here from "the old country" of Ukraine to stay with a succession of American relatives, each of whom is more eager than the next to get rid of her.  Trina has constructed a very funny persona of a fish out of water - a yokel from the old country who makes a fool of herself time and again with American manners and institutions, such as the time she goes to the super market and tried to haggle over every item with the person at the cash register. At bottom, though, her character has hold of a life force that gets her through even the worst embarrassments and will clearly help her outlive us all.  Some of the more obvious jokes in the middle of her one hour routine fell flat, and Baba's habit of yelling at her numbskull nephew to change the slides gets old really fast.  But Trina has enough of that life force herself to outlast her less funny material and make the experience feel like a triumph.

Besides that, everyone gets a shot of real potato vodka (very yummy!) and a small pierogi and slice of sausage.   No wonder the house was so full.  I'm sure as Trina keeps working on this material, her character will become even richer and more memorable, even as she remains very funny.

Wishing you well with that, Baba!

THE RED GUITAR: A Jazz Libretto written and performed by Bruce Forman

Veteran jazz guitarist has been there and back, and he has lived to tell the tale.  He is the living definition of a craftsman, who has devoted his life to studying jazz guitar legends like Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt, and studying with jazz legends like Sonny Rollins and Ray Brown.  When Clint Eastwood needed a jazz craftsman to help him with some of the recordings for his movie about Charlie Parker, Bird, who was it he turned to?  Bruce Forman, of course.  Bruce has some stories to tell from his lengthy career, and The Red Guitar gives him the chance to tell them.  And it's an absolute pleasure to hear him play.

That said, it must be added that Bruce is not the most charismatic of stage personalities, and a little more pizzazz would have gone a long way to making "the Red Guitar" something haunting and memorable - like "The Red Shoes" and "The Red Violin" - and not just a pretext for hearing some great tunes laid down by a master.  But hey - why pass up any chance to hear a master at work?  Only one show left, on Friday June 16 at 9 pm.  It's a very small house, so don't miss out.

IN THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW by Katherine Cortez, directed by Elina de Santos

This is without a doubt the most powerful piece I've seen so far in the Fringe, and I hope it garners a large following.  A 75 minute exploration of a tragedy very similar to the Pulse Nightclub shooting of a year ago, it captures this shattering event in very human terms while also daring to bring in a strong spiritual element too - spiritual as opposed to religious, which comes in for some very pointed criticism.  In a strong cast,  Ethan Rains, Rachel Sorsa, Tania Verafield and especially Dylan Arnold stand out as characters caught in the headlights of history and in a struggle that isn't their own - until it is.  The double-casting of several actors works very theatrically here, especially with Ethan Rains, who plays both the mass-murderer and a deeply-sensitive and loving gay man - and he is equally effective at conveying the essence of both.  Elina de Santos does a wonderful job in letting the play find its rhythm, but she somehow leaves out the joy and celebration that would be everywhere in this gay nightclub.  Even the characters in the poster are dancing -  how come there's no dancing onstage?  It doesn't make any sense, and it causes the production to miss an important point about the jealousy and anger that such unabashed joy breeds in those incapable of taking part in it.  It's also a missed opportunity theatrically, as the dancing would add a mesmerizing element that could break up the excessive wordiness of some of the dialogue.  Hopefully this will be incorporated down the line with a play that has so much to say to our time about the difficulty of being vulnerably human in a world filled with hate.