Hollywood Fringe Fest is wrapping up its third official week of shows and is ending this final weekend with an awards ceremony. With close to four hundred shows in one month, June proved to be a thrilling and emotional and challenging month. We hope you managed to see something that made you laugh or cry or lifted your spirits! (Or completley emotionally devastated you… you know… if you are into that sort of thing, haha!)
In a frenzy, Russell managed to squeeze a few more shows into his schedule before all the curtains came down for their final time. Here are thoughts on those shows.
A Very Die Hard Christmas
A Very Die Hard Christmas is a musical parody of one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made.
If you don’t believe Die Hard is a Christmas movie, you’re dead to me.
Playfully retelling the plot of the well-known action film, this live version manages to show complete affection for the source material while also ridiculing the convenient plot holes, dated characters and action movie logic.
There are some very clever lyrics poking fun at the familiar characters and their holiday gone wrong. There is also good-natured poking fun at what went wrong with all of the sequels – all of the weaker and weaker sequels which got more and more ridiculous, when the original was pretty ridiculous on its own.
The cast here is having fun and the audience hopped on board from the opening moments. The show picks up speed quickly and, wisely, never slows down. The characterization of Hans Gruber by Jim Martyka is deadpan comic perfection. His entire crew of “terrorists” are the source of the biggest laughs in the show, each of them having individuals moments to shine.
As an African-American John McClane, Wade Wilson is uncanny at times with his dead-on Bruce Willis voice. This is not imitation, though. He makes the role his own. It’s fine balance between parody, homage and originality. As his independent wife, Holly, Kire Horton brings a sassy, sexy vibe to the role and knows how to milk a moment for laughs.
Visually clever, the cast sells the goofiness of trying to stage huge action sequences on a bare stage with minimal props. All the iconic film moments are represented. There are multiple visual gag’s involving the amount of injuries McClane manages to endure in the process of outsmarting the villains. His final appearance is particularly satisfying.
The production also provide some hysterical moments when it utilizes some surprising well-known Christmas characters from multiple sources. But, I’m not going to reveal exactly who shows up. Hopefully, this show will come back during the Christmas season, it has a history of doing so and I highly recommend you go to the Nakatomi Plaza Christmas party if you ever get the chance. (Check out the website for Theatre Unleashed for more information.)
A Beast / A Burden
A Beast / A Burden is a biographical play covering several months in the life of artist Chris Burden. The show is a thoughtful piece raising many questions about art and how we interpret it.
Burden is a controversial art figure, some would call his creations performance art while others would consider them political statements. This show explores Burden as a complex, troubled figure trying to make a mark. Even as he is doing so, he questions exactly what that means.
Ben Hethcoat portrays Chris Burden with a hesitant stammer, aloof demeanor and a physicality that is at times both awkward and sexual. He creates the man in a way that you never trust his motivations and often wonder exactly what he’s after. Much like Chris Burden the artist, this piece allows his motivations to always be mysterious.
That anchor performance is surrounded by an ensemble that brings heavy doses of emotion, confusion and cynicism. This is a strong cast working strongly together. Portraying Barbara, a supportive and sometimes befuddled wife, Jessica Deshaw becomes a great symbol for us, the audience. Are we being manipulated or do we even matter to the artist?
One fascinating sequence early on has two art reviewers interacting with Burden as one of his performances is going on. The silent artist is present, but the focus is on a couple with vastly different interpretations of the piece. It sets up the rest of the show perfectly as they can’t agree on how to interpret what lies before them.
There is video of many Burden pieces on the internet, but even in Burden’s owns words they are not reliable representations of the art itself. They are only videos of a live experience. They are not equal. He was an artist willing to make himself physically vulnerable to his audience. Choosing to physically interpret portions of the Burden pieces during the show manages to stress how odd and stirring some of Burden’s actual performances must have been to witness live.
This show features a sequence where every character becomes an unreliable narrator relating their own interpretation of a Burden performance, one that no video exists of today. It becomes a fascinating breakdown of how a single piece of art can divide, unite, confuse, anger or exhilarate different observers. Well written and directed by Billy Ray Brewton, this is a challenging play that manages to stir many questions into its running time, but wisely leaves most answers up to the audience. This show has been in the forefront of my thoughts for days.
At its best, this show challenges the audience to question what they see in art and how much of their own life influences those interpretations. Burden was a complicated individual, that is clear. This piece is based on multiple biographical sources and ends up painting Burden as a complex, sometimes unsympathetic, man. This cast manages to humanize him.
After all of the conversations concerning art… its purpose, its importance or its meaninglessness… the show ends with Burden himself becoming a piece of art the audience helps create and interpret. It is a simple, beautiful device.
Cthulhu: The Musical
Puppeteers for Fears is a theater company based in Ashland Oregon with a fascinating mission. They “specialize in horror and science fiction-themed musical comedies written for puppets.” When I saw the description of this show stating it was a musical version of the Cthulhu story with puppets, I was definitely excited.
Unfortunately, technical issues marred their first Hollywood Fringe Festival performance heavily and I feel I cannot judge the piece fairly. The sound was horrendous. When the band played, no character could be heard above the music. Long stretches of the show unfolded with the audience having no clue as to what the lyrics were saying. It’s a shame, since the dialogue between songs had some sincere moments, big laughs and cheeky theater jokes about genres and character motivations. The show clocked in at two hours – way too long for the premise and the sound issues made it feel even longer.
On the plus side, the puppet designs are solid, fun and well performed. Having fun with the fourth wall, interesting projections and lots of tentacles, the cast certainly gave it their all. The final sequence, building to the appearance of The Old One, certainly provided an applause-worthy moment that the audience enjoyed.
Puppeteers for Fears is on tour with this show and I certainly hope for a chance to see them again at some point in a better situation. It is clear they are onto something cool and unique with their approach to horror and sci-fi. You can learn more about this fun group at www.puppeteersforfears.com.
Eyes of the Blind
This piece is a mix of genres. Primarily a fascinating and disturbing drama, the story of a young woman dealing with the death of her sister quickly spirals into fairly horrific territory.
On the surface this unfolds as a ghost story, Amy sees her deceased sister Cassie appear to her. The investigation of why becomes a haunting exercise on several levels. An emotionally distant and abusive father seems determined to put the death of his daughter behind him as quickly a possible. But, why the rush?
As the answers to that question begin to reveal themselves, the show takes on more of a horror tone. As the threat of demons, emotional ones and possibly other kinds, becomes more and more present, this ghost story turns into an interesting exploration of religion and how it can be twisted to fit a specific agenda.
Is this description confusing? It might be, I realize. The piece itself is a mix of numerous styles and issues. It creates an interesting mix, but, for me, not an entirely satisfying one. The unfolding religious issues and the realizations Amy makes concerning her father’s past and how his actions have shaped this family is rich territory to explore. The father’s harshness is partial cause for his daughter’s inability to connect with others – but it makes them both fairly unsympathetic characters to follow. Veering from drama to horror with a touch of potential romance in the mix, the show struggles to find a clear tone. For me, it worked best when it finally embraced the horror vibe with confidence.
This cast works well with some heavy material and some truly inventive staging when it comes to the supernatural elements. The appearance of “ghosts” is handled with a creative touch and it helps strengthen the darker side of the material. When the final scenes come and those apparitions drive home the point that the worst demons may be people in our lives, it’s powerful imagery. That’s where the show worked best for me and the cast brought a painful realism to those scenes.
(I attended a “workshop” performance of this show presented during Fringe. Adjustments are still being made to the show. There is a plan that this show will return later in the year and details should be available soon about that run. To stay up to date on information concerning future productions, we suggest you check out the Capital W website and join their mailing list.)
Another offering in the “immersive” category of Fringe, this show offers up the story of Reverend Dan, his family and a pivotal Sunday in their lives.
Presented by Capital W / Drycraeft Los Angeles, this show has a sense of realism and intimacy that has been a theme in the past work of Capital W. (Known for Hamlet-mobile and Red Flags, two previous immersive offerings.)
Rochester, 1996, revolves around Reverend Daniel Shoemaker (Thaddeus Shafer), his wife Emily (Kelsey Landon Olson) and his daughter, Philippa (Nerea Duhart). We immediately see Reverend Dan in his element. He shines while leading a church service to open the show. An energetic, friendly presence who obviously offers comfort and guidance to his congregation. Seeing him interact with his wife and daughter as part of the service, as well as several members of the church, we immediately get a sense of the man’s compassion for others… and us. The entire congregation is friendly, chatty and very welcoming.
But, Philippa is the person who leads us through this day. Immediately, she hints at growing tension within the family and herself. Questioning her faith and her feelings as she becomes an adult, it is her perspective we see this world through.
What unfolds over the course of almost three hours is a glimpse of the family’s past and events that have led them to this day of reckoning.
The emotional story of a Reverend trying to save one of his flock (Dasha Kittredge) from an abusive situation unfolds with surprising grace. Every hand gesture, every sideways glance of sadness or yearning… it resonates with a haunting believability. There is incredible honesty in the performances. The theatrical device of Philippa speaking directly to the audience to fill in information about time jumps and history of the family is the only thing that reminds you this is actually a show. This feels like eavesdropping on a family’s personal business. The ensemble of actors brings this entire world to life with stunning naturalism.
The intimacy of a father offering comfort to his upset daughter, a daughter confronting her father… moments such as these play out with startling simplicity. The effect, at times, is awe-inspiring.
What happens when good people fail? As the show reaches its conclusion, a wonderful sequence inside the family home manages to heighten the already realistic feeling of what unfolds. When good people fail… lives may change forever.
During this workshop performance, there were a few elements that weakened some sequences. A portion of this show is staged in and around a vehicle. The staging sometimes made it hard to hear or see certain dramatic moments occur. Also, since the show is set in Rochester, New York, the LA locations sometimes proved a distraction simply because they are quintessential Los Angeles. Ambitiously moving the audience to multiple locations, the workshop performance felt clunky and awkward at times but that may change with more workshopping.
Overall, Rochester, 1996, is shaping up to be a deeply moving family drama with a message of self-acceptance at its core. This might turn out to be one the most impressive immersive pieces of the year in Los Angeles.
When Skies Are Gray
The premise of When Skies are Gray is startlingly simple. When you check in for the show, you are greeted by the Head Nurse (Christina Bryan) and you are informed that “visiting hours” will soon begin. You then enter a re-creation of a hospice situation, with a woman (portrayed by Melissa R. Randel) near the end of her life being cared for by her daughter and several rotating shifts of nurses. At times, audience members are actually utilized to help the patient. It’s a device that adds warmth and emotional depth to this immersive piece.
The story is told in snippets as a daughter (Ashley Steed, who also created this piece) visits her dying mother on a daily basis. This play is born from Steed’s own experiences with her mother’s passing. This is all supported by a simplicity of staging and a hauntingly beautiful score by Dave McKeever.
There is no simple, strong narrative that unfolds here. You get glimpses into these two women’s lives, the occasional comments made about who needs to be contacted or what medication is effective allows the audience to witness a slow, emotionally draining process unfold. The focus is on the process of death which is unpredictable and sometimes complicated. The simple structure makes the situation feel harshly authentic and invites the audience to relate the process to their own experiences. By the end, this feels less like a play and more like an actual real-life experience. Mike called this show “raw and real” after he saw it. That’s the best description of it I have heard.
Audience members became overwhelmed with emotion. The majority of us were crying, one broke down completely, a few chose not to participate in one sequence because of the stark realism of the situation. Ashley, the creator and lead performer, gracefully maintained composure while generously allowing a safe, caring space for all of this emotion to flow around her. That sort of connection is an intimate, beautiful thing to witness in such close quarters. Actually, it is a gift to any audience lucky enough to participate.
My personal breaking point came during a sequence toward the end of the show where the relationship between mother and daughter is explained nonverbally through a series of movements and physical embraces. Mother and daughter reflect each other and support each other through that sequence and it eloquently displays love and connection better than words might allow.
I lost my father several years ago, and my mother has recently dealt with some age-related issues. This piece became a sobering reminder of things I never had a chance to say to my dad and has made me reflect on things I have not discussed with my mom. Wrestling with the process of death is not an easy subject. The bravery on display here by Ashley Steed and her entire cast and crew is deeply touching and inspirational.