At this Sixth Annual Hollywood Fringe Festival, about 300 shows were presented and I was able to cover 16 of them. The quality was exceptionally high and, since time was short, I then wrote the following reviews with no time to ponder. This was an exhilarating event with enthusiastic crowds of all ages gathering outside theaters buzzing with activity. I applaud the Fringe because participation is completely open and uncensored so individual artists can be free to perform what they choose and, by having to self-produce, learn to be autonomous.
Now that it’s over, and I have had time to think, it has struck me that all of these shows, whether polished or sketchy, were affirmative about life and relationships. Recently I have grown weary of so many professionally produced plays whose themes imply that suicide, rage, contempt and depression is today’s basic human condition. Violence and despair were nowhere to be seen at the Fringe (at least in the plays I saw) which raises the question - why are so many theatres pushing nihilism? Do they think it's chic to be cynical? Personally, I find negativism boring, and the plays that promote it generally dishonest and contrived.
So here are my 16 Fringe Festival reviews in alphabetical order:
AS WE GO… CONTEMPLATIONS ON WATER
Every day we hear we are running out of water in California, but what does water mean exactly? In this imaginative show, creator/performer Charline Su draws our attention to the deeper meaning of water and how it brings life to us and our planet. Su first draws us into her vision with an extraordinarily beautiful pantomime under a silvery shroud that flows, dips and shimmers like – yes – water. Then, with fine assist by actor-dancers Eric Loyosa, Lauren Murphy and Kila Packett, we hear eloquent warnings of what we are about to lose, amid movements that express the anguish and sense of loss this will mean. Taking words from Joan Didion’s ‘Holy Water’ and from contributing writers Jason S. Dennis and Henry Ong, we explore mans relationship with water through the ages. This poem in song and dance is beautifully lit by Chris Chapman. Go with the flow!
Being British born I had heard of the 19th century Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge, but knew little about him. Well, in this fascinating hour, Ryan Vincent Anderson, as Aldridge, vividly enacts the history but also shows the soul of the man. A free black American, at age 18 Aldridge escaped from a country where his passion for acting was thwarted by the dangers of prejudice. What playwright Rick Creese shows in this biography is the personal life of an itinerant player in that era who became a star while demanding that the British abolish slavery throughout the Empire – which they did. There is his deep affection in marriage to a blonde English lady; his relationships with other greats of the period; the desperation of an actor traveling throughout the British Isles performing for a pittance; his dream of performing at Covent Garden, the Broadway of that time; and finally his devotion to his little abandoned son. In the Shakespearean fragments, Anderson is magnificent as Othello, natch, but equally riveting as Shylock, just one of the roles Aldridge conquered.
As someone who has never read Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ this updating the story to modern LA by Stina Pederson is silly but fun. Allison Powell is adorable as the naïf Catherine drawn into a Gothic Hollywood mad-for-success plot. She has the face of a porcelain doll and the eyes of a wondering deer in headlights. The entire cast perform with an energy and mad delight that is a relief from the too-often subtle murmurings in other shows. Jane Austen might not recognize her own work but if she lived today this might have been the tale she would tell.
As a daughter whose mother had Alzheimers, Eileen Weiner starts with wry complaints about adult diapers but soon shifts into portraying the mother who once was a young woman like herself, falling in love and marrying, then losing her beloved husband. It’s basically a familial remembrance and the witty songs lift it from being maudlin. I already had heard much of the material since Eileen was a co-writer in Jill Schary Robinson’s Blue Coyote Writers Workshop in Hollywood. Needs work, and a directorial eye is suggested, but there is genuine pathos in this simple presentation.
Ingrid Garner brilliantly creates history through a series of different characters, an 8 year old girl, her stern father, her courageous mother, her smart elder brother and the stern voices of the oppressive regime in Germany under Hitler. Its all true, based on her American grandmother’s memoir of being trapped in Germany throughout World War Two. This young girl’s view of the oppression of the average German people, and their eventual punishment from Allied bombings, creates a sad parallel to Anne Frank’s tragic life-saluting diary. A wonderful one-woman performance that my companion, costume designer Tricia Stubbs, begs to have performed in all the schools so young people will know this history. The book is ‘An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany.’ If you can’t see the play, at least go buy the book.
The three performers are marvelous but as I was expecting a play about three generations of women - grandmother, mother and daughter - it was a disappointment that all three are played by young women. Whether playwright Lee Blessing intended to cast this way is unclear. Still, Sienna Beckman, as the teenage Echo, manages to suggest not only an awkward pre-teen but even a 3 month infant. As the grandmother, Dorothea, Alyson Terwilliger gives a bright portrait of a ditzy 1950’s housewife whose head and brains are way up in the clouds. As the mother, Artie, Kari Swanson captures the anguish of a woman desperately fleeing any emotional connections until forced to capitulate by her only child. Director Miranda Stewart adroitly handles the twisting time lapses that make up the play. The word ELEEMOSYNARY means ‘relating to charity’ and is significant as part of an onstage Spelling Bee Contest and the emotional tug-of-war that haunts the play.
HELLO OUT THERE
I love William Saroyan’s work and the tenderness and love for simple people that radiates from his view of humanity. In this play, about an innocent man threatened by a lynch mob, if one was not familiar with Saroyan’s style, and jaded by our modern view, we might miss the point that here are two gentle people meeting and influencing each other. Nowadays we suspect kindness and look for the hidden agenda a stage character has. Well, director Nate Clute (who stepped in as the lead for this performance) is true to Saroyan, so turn off your cynicism and accept the play as a paean to love. Clute as actor and director makes it work, however, please turn up the lighting in the jail cell.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
This play was so spellbinding the audience did not want to leave and, even after the curtain calls, they all sat wanting more. Lead performer and playwright Elizabeth Rian has a knack for diva impersonations that fit her haughty protagonist, an actress forced to be helpful to a bunch of senile old folk. She is a beauty and surrounds herself with a terrific cast. The play delves into what defines true kindness and how even playacting at caring can somehow transform one’s spirit. This one hour presentation is a teaser for a full length play that I hope Rian will pursue as it’s a perfect show for my NOT BORN YESTERDAY senior readers.
LADY INTO FOX
Here is the Greatest Test of Love told in an allegory about loss where in England a deeply beloved wife, fearful of the baying hounds of a Fox Hunt, is suddenly transformed into a fox. Her husband, knowing he must protect her from danger, takes desperate action. And so a series of tragic events follow. Worst of all, for him, is the losing of her as she gradually forgets her human form and becomes totally a fox. Told in a multi-structured form, the three actors talk to us to explain what’s going on, then artfully transform into the characters – with one of them impersonating myriad forms. Claire Kaplan is liquid in her movements as woman and fox, Nathan Turner is firm but bewildered as her protective husband, while Spencer Devlin Howard is bossy as a domestic Nurse and sweet as some other endangered animals. Watch for this deeply moving show in future venues.
Author Christopher Durang is at his madcap best in this funny portrait of two modern young people trying to make sense of an absurd world. First Constantin Wenzel draws us into his sphere where his struggle to be a spiritual being is always being demolished by his dour interior cynic. Then Samantha D’Alessio is totally daft, a grumbling psycho trundling her rage into every minor event she stumbles across. They meet, not so cute, in a grocery store where a can of tuna becomes a signal for war. The small things in life are the basis of the humor in this madly captivating play. Carried by these two excellent performers we are whirled into a world where logic and common sense cast no shadow. Directed with panache by Kymberly Harris. You’ll laugh, I guarantee, perhaps even wildly.
MIGHT AS WELL LIVE
These 4 playlets, adapted and directed by Adam Scott Weissman from stories by the often cynical Dorothy Parker, show a deeply gentle side of her in the first play ‘The Lovely Leave.’ In fact, this beautifully realized tale of a young wife and her Air Force husband spending only minutes together before he is shipped overseas and into the black hole of World War II is a masterpiece of stagecraft. They look at each other with deep tenderness, even kiss once or twice, but mostly they squabble. Here are two real people (rarely personified in the shows I review) unable to say or do the right things because the underlying misfortune of their lives colors every word they speak. The two actors, Bailey Wilson and Paul Stanko, are perfectly cast and wonderfully real. Hey Weissman, make a short film of this and submit it for an Oscar. The other three plays are fun, the actors fine, and Parker’s sarcasm is back on point.
ON TIDY ENDINGS
No one has written as eloquently about AIDS and the confusion and heart-rending losses of so many as Harvey Fierstein. Here a man has died and his former wife appears to be claiming him back from the lover who nursed him through his final desperate years. Yet the craftsmanship here does not allow for predictable conflicts, the two actors are well served by a playwright who knows that what is said is rarely as important as what is left unsaid. Kimberly Patterson is magnificent as the businesslike ex-wife, but Michael Mullen breaks your heart as the wounded champion left with nothing but boxes of memorabilia. His movements are brisk and gracious but his face, eyes and voice reveal volumes of pain. This performance brought my always stoic husband to tears. Hope you all get to see it.
ORSON WELLES & SCATMAN CROTHERS in A HOLLYWOOD ENDING
Imagine this! Orson Welles’ last job in Hollywood was as the voice of a Planet, and Scatman Crothers’ was as the voice of an Astronaut named Jazz, in an animated film. In England they’d both have already been knighted for their contribution to their Nation’s Culture but, sadly, here the reward is humiliation and penury. How each of them deal with this reality is the intriguing subject of David Castro’s play where they meet, and skirmish, at an audition. Dennis Neal is brilliant as Crothers, an ironic spokesman for the Tinseltown Truth, while Rob Locke as Welles awesomely personifies this all-too-familiar figure of the Genius who demanded too much. Word is out that it’s being expanded into a full-length play. I certainly hope so and that these two actors stay with it.
SIMON CORONEL: GLITCHES IN REALITY
According to Simon, the world is divided into people who scoff at magic tricks, people who gasp in wonder, and people who just don’t care. My skeptical husband kept trying to tell me how this or that illusion was “done” while credulous me just gasped at the magic of it all. What an affable chap Simon is, patiently explaining to his eager audience how he does each ‘trick’ then leaving us all baffled as he does it. Such fun. A $5 bill turns into a 50 in front of our eyes. His small Soy Sauce bottle is upstaged by an audience members large one! He pops a Rubik’s Cube into his mouth and chews it into place. My favorite illusion was when he took story suggestions from the audience and, engaging the guy behind us, had him draw from a locked box a written version of the improvised story. Advice: Sit in the front row if you want to play a part in the show.
Ladies and gentlemen – she does Standup, she does Cabaret, but most of all she does Opera! Now there seems to be a rumor that people are fed up with opera, or they don’t like it, or they hold their ears when the fat lady sings, but don’t buy it. It’s delightful fun when doing stand-up, Erin Carere, in often vulgar language, tells us of the adventures (sexual and otherwise) that have brought her to this point. Everyone laughs when she equates high notes with farts. BUT. When she changes into a slinky grey silk gown, with gloriously white featured wings, and delivers her final number, Puccini’s Nessun Dorma (the tenor’s aria) the rafters ring and this listener grieved the loss to opera of this fantastic singer. What a voice. My ears still ring. Forget the laughter, forgive the scatological words, in this finale she is transcendent. Go and meet her, learn who she is and then revel in her glorious voice. P.S. She’s also beautiful!
When she was 21, Ann Starbuck went to China and here she revisits that adventure and brings us along. It was 1989, the country was under Mao’s punitive Communist rule and this gal was alone, hardly spoke Chinese and, in spite of a number of panic attacks, loved being there and seeing the Great Wall and other famous sites. As a student she was protected from the harsher rules her new friends lived under yet, being an intrepid traveler, she managed to become part of the local people’s lives. A job as gopher for a CNN camera crew brought her into the heart of the student uprising and the protest in Tiananmen Square that ended in a massacre by the Red Army. She portrays a number of characters, Chinese and American in a charming effortless way that brings these scenes to life. If you love history don’t miss her story.