Hollywood Fringe Festival Gets Better by the Year

GELFAND’S WORLD--The Hollywood Fringe is once again in full swing. The following brief reviews (and one little comment on our national politics) are intended to introduce you to some possibilities.

Out of the hundreds of shows available, these are a few that other theater goers recommended or seemed of interest. Should you consider attending the Fringe, these are possibilities. Read one or five or none of these comments as you see fit. Overall, I would say that the quality is improving from year to year, with some fine shows going on right now. 

The Festival officially started on Thursday and will run through June 30. Mostly strung out along Santa Monica Blvd between Vine and Highland, it showcases hundreds of productions. As I have described in previous years, the Fringe is a way for you to put fifty dollars in your pocket and see as many different plays as you like in a single day or over a weekend. A typical price for a ticket is $15, but many shows feature "pay what you can afford" pricing, particularly during the (now past) preview week. 

At one time, it was common to attend Fringe plays that were populated by actors who performed at barely high school level. You know what I mean -- people trying to remember their lines and when they do remember, speaking the words in sing-song fashion. Not so much anymore. Of the seven performances I attended over this past weekend, not even one descended to that level, and several achieved fully professional quality. 

Here, in descending order of interest and quality, are my picks so far: 

The Trial of Dali is a depiction of the life and imagination of the surrealist painter Salvadore Dali. It is set at a moment when Dali has returned to Spain, the land of his birth and early career. It's the period following his life in the United States, which included the Second World War. The "trial" in the title involves a dramatic conceit in which a woman from the town of his birth prosecutes him for something or other -- it seems to be crimes against art and perhaps against herself. As in other plays and films featuring trials, the courtroom scenes are used to explore the motivations and histories of the players. 

Onto this canvas, the author and actors have assembled something of the man himself, something of the genius of his work, and here and there, bits of surrealist imagery flowing across the stage. Curiously, I couldn't help thinking of a comic book story from 1971 in which the writer "Harlequin Ellis" (a thinly disguised Harlan Ellison) has such a powerful imagination that strange things happen around him merely by his passage through the world. That's what's going on for a few moments in this play too, as Dali's surrealistic fantasies erupt onto the stage and then die away. It also reminded me of some of Robert Altman's cinema, particularly Brewster McCloud. Only in this case, the mind-bending nature of the work is designed to illuminate the mind bending nature of Dali's work and of Dali himself. 

It also has fun with the fact that Dali was a great self-promoter who was at least externally egotistical in a way that few humans can get away with. Unlike so many others, Dali had some natural right to his proclaimed genius simply because he had presented to the world The Persistence of Memory.  

Along the way, we meet Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Dali's wife Gala, and the self-appointed prosecutor Isabel Canto. Yes, a woman from Dali's past has decided to charge him with that something or other and the judicial system cooperates. The play is surrealistic even at this level. 

One other thing. This play was created and performed by a group of Polish-Australians from Sydney. The author is Andy Kolo. Dali is played by James Domeyko, who actually looks the part, what with his lean features and well crafted moustache. Two young women play Marilyn Monroe, each to good effect. Marta Kiec-Gubala plays the prosecutor to excellent effect -- this is a role which can be too underplayed or made to be too shrill, and the actress threads the needle perfectly. Boguslaw Szpilczak even looks a bit like Andy Warhol. Of course Warhol was best known for the Pop Art fad, while Dali has affected our civilization. 

The Duchess and the Stripper: Another fun fantasy ripped from yesterday's headlines. Remember the old story about how the American divorcee Wallis Simpson stole the heart of England's king Edward VIII? And how he abdicated his throne and married her? And how they were known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after that? 

We now add a second character, also historical, the stripper Blaze Starr, successful owner of a burlesque club in Baltimore. 

The connection, however fantastical, is that Wallis Simpson originally came from Baltimore. 

So we can imagine a moment when the duchess, while visiting in Baltimore, drops in at Blaze Starr's club and makes the acquaintance of the stripper herself. And the two of them start a bit frostily but through polishing off a fifth of bourbon, find some common ground. In vino veritas indeed, but this aged plot device fits neatly with the circumstances and the characters in front of us. Starr, as someone who is not in the least awed by the presence of English nobility, helps Simpson to open up. Simpson, as the duchess who has a few troubles of her own, allows Starr to express some of her own thoughts on what we might refer to as feminism. Both together enjoy themselves commenting on the foibles and weaknesses of men. 

The Duchess and the Stripper is largely a vehicle for what my old textbook referred to as witty repartee. It's got great lines and well-delivered comedic pauses. Blair Chandler nails the part of the duchess beginning with opening moments of frosty condescension evolving over the next hour into a believable exercise of letting her hair down. Alli Miller plays the slightly cynical Blaze Starr. The two tell stories about winning (or is it trapping) their men, Simpson taking a king and Starr gaining the love of Louisiana governor Earl Long. 

And there is a third player, the assistant to Ms Starr -- June Fleming -- played by Krista Conti. Unlike Blaze Starr, June is at first star-struck in the presence of English nobility. She eventually gets past her hesitation and develops her own conversation with the duchess, but only after amusing the audience with her fumbling attempts to curtsey. 

Olivia Wilde Does Not Survive the Apocalypse: Two actors, one male and one female, accept payment to participate in a NASA sponsored experiment in which they will be put in suspended animation for a year. Something to do with proving the viability of long space voyages or something like that. When they awake, they slowly figure out that there was a glitch, that 300 years have gone by, and that they are now alive in a post-apocalyptic dictatorship. So far, we have a not-unusual science fictional scenario. We've seen and read them before. 

The gimmick in this timeline is that our two players are the only actors still alive. The authorities decide to make use of their talents to broadcast a play to the enslaved masses. If the play doesn't succeed, they will be executed. 

The virtues in this production consist pretty much of showbiz in-jokes, or so I inferred. The audience laughed heartily each time one of the characters referred to some filmic plotline that they must avoid in order to survive. At one point, the lead actress refers to the fact that the assembled cast of amateur serfs they have been training have elevated themselves to the level of community theater. This got one of the biggest laughs of the night. 

The other amusing extended in-joke was the naming of the characters, ranging from Dr Hu to Rodeo, Abbot Kinney, Chandler, Crenshaw, and O'Sullivan. Three local boulevards and three iconic characters. 

Emilie Martz as the last remaining professional actress carries the show through a penchant for naturalistic delivery of the science-fictional script and some stunning good looks. It will be interesting to see where and how her professional career develops. 

And to the author, let me commend Robert A Heinlein's Double Star

Scarlett Fever is the story of how Vivien Leigh was chosen to play Scarlet Ohara in Gone With the Wind, casting a wide net to find an unknown to play against Clark Gable. It's both a musical and a drama and a Hollywood History story. It's kind of nostalgic, what with the performing space being half a block up from where Buster Keaton actually really truly created his studio. (And Los Angeles somehow forgets to tell this to the tourists.) 

The music is by parts rhythmic and a little hypnotic, showing a modest family relationship with the operatic pieces of Philip Glass. The Scarlett candidates sing, alternatively, "What do you see in me? What do you need from me? What do you need from me right now?" 

Let's mention the musicians, who don't always get enough credit in dramatic reviews: Ken Jenkins, Gordon Wimpress, Shih-Wei Carrasco-Wu, and John Wuchte. 

Compared to the music, the dance numbers are a bit rough cut, but they are always at least tolerable. 

And this musical goes beyond the usual peon to David O. Selznick to include his brother Myron. It's like the Sherlock stories, where Sherlock had an older, smarter brother. Myron is said by at least some to have been the business brains in the family company. 

And there is one more character of note. Kay Brown worked for Selznick and seems to have been influential in casting and overall business strategy. Olivia Cordell plays the part as a proto-feminist who can't go whole hog radical, but manages to make her points while assertively retaining her dignity. 

Pretty, Witty Nell 

A verse play about a courtesan who makes the acquaintance of king Charles II in the post-Cromwell era in England. Melanie Johnson is superb as Nell Gwyn. The real Gwyn was one of the first actresses allowed to perform on the English stage. She caught the eye not only of Charles, but also of authors such as Pepys. The script is by Ryan J-W Smith, who plays the several male roles. Johnson not only resembles at least one rising star of Saturday Night Live (she looks a lot like Heidi Gardner), she recites the word "whore" effortlessly and to good dramatic effect. 

The Death of Sam Mobean is one of those scripts where time loops back and at the end, everything goes exactly like it did in the beginning. Except that maybe a couple of the characters have taken each others' places. The author explains that he was playing with the concept of string theory in physics. The players mention quantum theory every now and then. OK. 

If we ignore the question of scientific verisimilitude and just view this as a theater piece, we have a well acted sorta-thriller in which a man kills another man because "he had it coming" and as part of his death sentence, has to meet with a penal rehabilitation specialist. The author and cast seem to be having fun with the idea of red-neck culture. They also jump on organized religion even as they question the structure of space-time. 

There is also mention of a device that somehow controls the looping of time itself, but that part of the plot is dropped like a hot MacGuffin

Excellent diction and stony gazes in this one. 

It's Personal: Los Angeles + Hollywood Fringe: This is the one show I saw which resembles those old high school quality Fringe plays of the past. 

Eight young folks (mostly in their late 20s if I recall correctly) are recent immigrants to L.A. from other parts of the country. Each takes a few moments to tell us what L.A. means to them. In practice, the presentations involved what the process of dislocation has meant to them personally. Let me summarize. Just like all the thousands of adolescents who go off to college, these folks are home-sick, short on funds, and stressed over finding an apartment. They don't seem to know much beyond the chance of employment in the food service industry and the idea of taking acting classes. 

In other words, they don't seem to have made any deep dives into the culture or history of the region or anything else about Los Angeles. I don't begrudge them their navel gazing. It's just not theater. 

The Trump Administration and Crying Wolf 

I have no idea whatsoever about whether Iran had anything to do with the fires on the two oil tankers. Mike Pompeo seemed to be reading a carefully worded script that in previous eras might have been considered a serious effort at truth telling. In John Kennedy's day, it would have been taken seriously. Even under LBJ, the Tonkin Gulf Incident was treated seriously at first. Would anybody half sane and half honest take anything coming from this administration seriously? How many times has the boy cried "Wolf"? 

This is the group who insisted that Trump's inaugural crowd was the largest in history, and that was just his first day in office. Ten thousand lies later, why should we believe him (or his cabinet officers) about anything? 

And Pompeo's citing of American intelligence assets after Trump has derided them takes irony to a new level. 

Hmmm. Samantha Vinograd has much the same thought. 

This is just one danger of becoming known to the whole world as a habitual liar.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)