Hollywood Fringe Fest 2018 – Week Two Reviews

Hollywood Fringe Fest is well underway! In the second official week of Fringe, Russell decided to binge on Fringe and took in multiple shows! Here’s a wrap-up of his thoughts on what he saw. If something sounds interesting to you, make sure you get a ticket sooner than later as many runs are already becoming sold out or coming to an end!

Romeo and Juliet

A classic tale, you know the story.

Enthusiastically attacked by a cast that is clearly relishing the more melodramatic and comedic sides of this tale, this version is a welcome interpretation. (Come on, don’t tell me you were unaware that Shakespeare peppered this thing with sexual innuendo and witty insults.) The entire company tackles the material with obvious passion. After all, there’s great stuff here. Their energy makes the classic story feel fresh even if you know exactly what the plot holds.

The clever approach presented here includes some interesting genre swapping of supporting characters. This results in some unexpected twists as a female Mercutio holds her own against a rival or two and brings a welcome sexual tension between herself and Romeo. In the same vein, having Juliet’s enthusiastic nurse being male adds more humor and dimension to the role as he becomes, at times, a stand-in father figure as the disconnect with her real father complicates Juliet’s world endlessly. With Friar Laurence also being female in this cast, that role plays more tragically than usual. Having a woman at the helm of a desperate plot to salvage love out of a hopeless situation seems more sympathetic than I have felt before. Again, the entire cast makes the most of this brisk version.

Performed in 90 minutes, the show pushes forward at a dizzying pace. Characters have been combined, there’s been cutting to the text that leaves this show feeling – just a bit – like a Greatest Hits album. All your favorite scenes are here! Tackling the party scene with modern dance music works very well and adds youthful energy to the initial Romeo and Juliet meeting that is welcome. Using a rock score for some of the fight sequences is not as successful but it is an interesting approach.

Smart enough to slow down for most key moments, the cast brings to the forefront the core emotions of a ridiculously tragic circumstance. The moments that hit the best for me are the balcony scene, the plotting of Friar Laurence at each turn, Juliet and her nurse dealing with so much information second-hand and the rambunctious interactions of Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio and Paris – each defending the honor of the house they are loyal to by name. The trouble with such a fast tempo, though, is that the death scenes – which are plenty – can feel rushed. This robs the piece of some potential dramatic impact. It would have been nice if the tragic side had been a played a bit slower and… well… more tragic. That being said, the simple bluntness of Romeo’s encounter with Tybalt is truly shocking in its abrupt execution.

The challenge with Shakespeare can simply be making it accessible and understandable to today’s audience. The language can be an issue, which sometimes leads to confusion about story if your audience loses their way. That is NOT a problem here, thanks to the cast.

Is it odd to say I had a fun time at this show? Not sure, but thanks to the clever direction and enthusiastic cast, that’s exactly what happened.

Snow Fridge

(Spoiler Warning:  Snow Fridge is an experience for one audience member at a time.  Even though very personalized, I suspect the structure of the piece may be similar for multiple patrons.  I am going to reveal some aspects of my show.)

This immersive piece is for one audience member at a time.  Before the show, you are asked a few short questions.   Obviously, I can only talk about my experience since the show was based on my information.  The questions asked encouraged me to reveal a certain aspect about patterns in my life.  My answers help form the base of a short, improvised whirlwind of fun and games.

As you wait for the start of the show, you get to sit a Hollywood bar playing painfully, obnoxiously loud music.  Not the best pre-show feeling, perhaps, but it did not dampen my anticipation for the show.  I signed a guestbook with a message of hope, I played with crayons and rolled some dice that could have represented anything I wanted… they were blank.  It seems, I thought to myself, the point of this evening will be to consider possibilities.

Suddenly, a young woman tells me my time has come and I race to follow her as she weaves through the bar and opens a door for me to enter.  An angelic / dream like / fairy-esque woman greets me and speaks briefly of dreams.  She expands a bit on the concepts of dream logic that for all dreamers… all you meet and all you create in a dream is, in some way, yourself.

Hands clasp over my eyes and moments later I hear my name being stated by multiple voices… it’s an odd, intimidating feeling.  As hands pull away, I find myself surrounded by several people adorned all in the same vibe as the woman who greeted me.  There is glitter, my friends.

What followed… well… it was a dream.  Incorporating the answers to my pre-show questions, we – as a group – explored the meanings of worlds, told stories to each other and ever so slightly challenged each other.  It was a playful dream, filled with whimsy and bizarre connections of thought to action to words.

The coolest moments were physically interacting (gently, I stress) with the cast to build things, dance, form a group of friends who were there for each other, even if it was only for a few minutes.  Since the whole show is improvised, there were moments of definite awkwardness as the cast led me from one scenario to another but this did not destroy the wondrous atmosphere being created.

For me, the highlight came when something happened involving a candle and an object I chose to use during the show.  Feeling the warmth of the candle, seeing the light dance across the face of the man holding it as he smiled intensely at me was intimate and thrilling.  This gave way to visualization, which led to a conversation of dreams becoming realities and then a playful sequence of destroying what I had created to give birth to something new. GEEZ, that sounds new-agey, doesn’t it?  Well, it did not come off that way as it was unfolding.  The reason it unfolds playfully is due to the fast-thinking cast willing to roll around, jump around and make a fool of themselves to support YOU, the audience to this vision.  In the end, the best thing you can do is accept the attention and the positive wishes and hope it does not thaw when you leave.

Rayn: An Electronic Burlesque Experience

A one-woman burlesque show stressing an extremely positive message of love and acceptance of ourselves and those around us, Rayn (played sweetly and mischievously by Elena Egusquiza)  is a young woman on a mission and it was fun to witness her perform as she was sharing such a positive message.

Reading the description of the show, it states that the show is an exploration “trying to draw a parallel between sex-workers and muses.”  It’s a message that does come through, but there’s even broader issues being raised.  If there is a strong story here, it was lost on me thanks to a brutally fuzzy sound system that distorted much of what was spoken during the show.  (It was a frustration for those around me, I noticed, as well.)  Luckily, much of the singing did make it through clearly and there were some very fun, touching moments during this show.

Indeed, it is clear the show is meant to encourage an openness around the subject of sexuality.  Smartly using fun, playful scenes to introduce her thoughts (and songs) there is a seduction going on here.  By the end, the entire room seemed to be charmed by what Rayn was doing.

Sexuality makes many people uncomfortable, especially in a public space.  The audience here is seated around the performer… so the audience members are visible to each other at all times.  It increases the intensity of the show.  Using audience interaction for the majority of scenes, Rayn breaks down the barrier between performer and audience.  If she’s here to play a game – we’re all going to play the game.

Be forewarned, the imagery is sexually charged and erotic.  And goofy.  And fun.  Some audience members may find parts of the show shocking or offensive, but the point of the show is to question WHY anyone would find it to be such?

We are all human.  This show uses the devices of burlesque and strip tease elements to equal the playing field among us all rather than turn the female form into an object.  Anyone can be an object.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to treat them as an equal?  (It’s certainly riskier.)

The result is a form of mutual respect.  The question comes up… is there anything wrong with us?  With being ourselves?  We are fine just as we are.  What if we embrace our desires and allow ourselves to have fun with them – without judging ourselves for being open and honest about who we are?  It’s a message that reaches far beyond the subject of sexuality.


Survival Check

In one of the cleverest twists I have seen at Fringe this year, this goofy, endearing comedy treats you to a silly premise that turns into a wonderful message about living life to the fullest.

The entire cast manages to hit the right balance of camp and sincerity to make this work.  To be honest, when the show started, I wasn’t sure about the tone.  The cast was made of stereotypes, each hitting predictable notes of witty banter and insults… it almost felt like a slasher film parody.  The catty girl, the sincere friend, the one with a dark secret, the exes thrown together, the clueless athlete… but each cliché is thankfully created here with some heart.

As the plot moves forward, this unfolds into a more complex piece.  The tone stays the same, but the plot veers into an odd live-action version of a well-known fantasy role-playing game.

Each stereotype finds out that they have to embody the purpose of – another stereotype!  By doing so, each of them learns about themselves and gathers confidence in their own worth.  The weird worlds folding into each manages to bring out some big laughs.  More importantly, the misadventure of these friends manages to bring out some sincere connections of people facing adverse situations together and just helping each other out.  That alone makes the piece enjoyable and fun.  However, what elevates this play is the opportunity to show how these stereotypes offer some safety from the bad stuff in our real day-to-day lives.

The final scenes strike genuine, heartfelt moments of honesty.  There is a “villain” in the piece and I won’t reveal what/who it is, but when you reach the end you will feel satisfied with the resolution of this adventure.  There will always be bad things in this world, that’s the truth.  Each of us will have to fight our own villains as best we can.  But, with friends it is easier to win some of the battles and sometimes the tools we have at our disposal may surprise even ourselves.

Survival Check wears its heart on its sleeve… and it’s a beacon of warmth.

P.S. Remember to always check for magic.

Lights Out in the Hermit’s Cave

Pure joy and whimsical fun from start to finish!  This piece bills itself as “an evening of vintage thrills and chills.”  It delivers.

The chills are mild but sincere as the audience is treated to the “live” radio broadcast of two short thrillers.  There is a Foley person making sound effects on-the-go and playing live music as needed to enhance the creepiness of the whole affair.

Taking a nod from those radio anthologies of the 30’s and 40’s, the cast attacks these pieces like anxious dogs howling on the moors in the moonlight.  They devour the material with glee and you cannot resist getting caught up in the tales.  Using scripts from two actual radio dramas titled “Lights Out” and The Hermit’s Cave” the show takes on the charm of that style of storytelling – a bit obvious at times but smartly letting the audience use its imagination to fill in the deeds of the characters caught in the tales ahead.

Not staged strictly as a radio play, the cast moves around and through the audience, managing to provide a few creepy jolts if you aren’t paying attention.

Totally charming, this is a fun-filled show with laughs and thrills and chills.  Thoroughly enjoyable!


The Universe (101)

Is it good when your head hurts after a play?  Sometimes, it is!

Awarded ‘Pick of the Fringe 2018’ by the Hollywood Fringe Festival. An energetic Quantum Clown, Norbut Yetso (Matthew Godfrey), manages to transport Psychic Comedian Evanion the Great (Ian Harvey Stone)  all the way through time from 1865 to Los Angeles right now.

Wackiness ensues, for sure.  In a delightfully wacky hour of physical comedy, mentalism, hypnotism and slapstick these two gentleman manage to throw a little bit of everything vaudevillian into the mix.  But, wait… there’s more.  They touch on Quantum Entanglement Theory and what exactly Shrodinger’s Cat means to us as we go through our daily, average lives.  (Oh, I had to look up a few things after the show, for sure.  I left his show wanting to know more about the numerous things being thrown around during all the comic craziness.)

Somehow, all of this is made relatable and – for the most part – understandable.  Physically demonstrating the trap of a paradox or explain how time travel is actually a possibility, somehow this all gets wrapped into a funny, engaging show that’s big on silliness and laughs.  Nicely done.


The Midnight Menagerie

The closest thing to a gross-out comedy I have seen at Fringe this year, The Midnight Menagerie features a strong cast tackling some pretty over-the-top characters.

Starting with the premise of a “mobster” turned screenwriter feeling slighted by the Hollywood studio system – and specifically everyone he feels ruined a screenplay he had poured his heart and soul into – what is a such a man to do?

Take revenge, of course!

Hosting a premiere party for those that have done him wrong, the guests arrive and the backstabbing and sniping commences.  Playing all of this big and broad, if there is any serious message to any of these shenanigans, it was lost on me.  I simply had fun watching these silly people try to save their own necks and willingly offer each other up for the writer’s next victims.  It’s every man or woman for themselves here.

I am deliberately not revealing much about the actual plot since it hinges on an almost Clue-like set-up.  The mystery that commences offers plenty of chances for the occasional splashing of blood and maybe a few other liquids.

Big, over-the-top characters doing outrageous things in the name of self-preservation.  It’s broad and perhaps not for the squeamish.  If gross-out comedy is your thing, give this a whirl.


Laertes Loves Hamlet Loves Ophelia

A clever rethink of the relationships of characters from Hamlet, this thing plays like a twisted love letter to Shakespeare and an alternate universe to some deeply dysfunctional, but loving, friends.

The three characters enter – just arriving from the funeral of Hamlet’s Dad.  It’s a modern apartment, though, and cell phones are a thing.  Alternate reality?  Alternate timeline?  Well, a little of both.  That’s the fun of this!  Playing all of the twists and turns with intense sincerity, things start unraveling when Hamlet ends up sharing an apartment with Laertes and Ophelia in the name of supporting each other emotionally.

Their intentions are good, but the execution is where these three friends fail.  Betrayals, infidelities, deceit and lies all unfold and complicate the situation.

Katelyn Schiller plays Hamlet with a sense of masculinity in the physical presence but with the playfulness of a young girl.  It’s fascinating to watch as she either stumbles or manipulates her way through her friend’s lives.  Who knows?  It’s hard to decide what, exactly, her true intentions are… but Hamlet is perhaps a little mad, right?  At times, the character is sad and lost, then quickly moves to seductress or manipulator.

Kelley Pierre as Ophelia seems torn between acting on her own decisions to investigate Hamlet and loyalty to her two friends.  She is pulled in different directions and effectively becomes more and more indecisive as she stumbles on to a secret that instigates a fascinating choice by Hamlet.  You feel sympathy but yearn for her to save herself if she cannot save her friends.

As Laertes, Payden Ackerman plays a sincere Everyman who wants everyone to be okay, even if it means sacrificing himself, with his relationships and his friends.  Doing his best to provide what is needed, he consistently seems to be drawing criticism from someone about his choices or position.  The portrayal is a fine balance between sympathetic friend or lover or cohort in mischief. He may be ineffectual at times, but he never becomes a doormat to the other characters.

All three performances are strong, providing a fascinating triangle of complicated histories and emotions which play as completely real.  The obvious chemistry between the cast members charges each scene with an intensity and passion that fills the theater.

Even if not totally familiar with the history of the characters, this play works and is highly entertaining and experimental.  The cast is universally strong and nails some pretty tricky emotional scenes.  Cleverly written and conceived by the three performers on stage, this is obviously born from a love of theater and the possibilities of bending time and space to create something unique.

Trippy and fun, this is electrifying, emotional theater.


Escape from Godot

Potentially the most joyfully odd concept at this year’s Fringe festival is part revival of the classic Beckett existential romp Waiting for Godot and part escape room.  Yeah, it’s wonderfully weird.

The creation of director and producer team Andy and Jeff Crocker, this plays like a big affectionate joke on the audience.  (Talking to them after the show, it seems like this wonderful creation is the result of some good-natured joking about being trapped in a production of the famous play.)

Because this is actually an escape game that is played out by the audience as the play is performed, I am going to remain light on details.

To begin, my audience entered the theater and found our assigned seats.  We had been told that the show would not start until everyone was seated.  The moment we were, the play began.  We watched Waiting for Godot unfold before us, not sure what exactly was expected from us, the audience.  Ever so slyly, things began to appear.  Moments began to be emphasized by the cast.  We looked at each other and thought… what’s next?

The cast led us on a truly fun and bizarre journey.

We messed up, for sure.  As with most escape rooms, there are moments of failure.  Setting this little adventure during a revival of the classic play actually became a bizarre reflection of themes.  In the play, actions are questioned and the purpose of doing certain things may seem meaningless OR may lead to the answer you seek.  Well, hearing the Beckett dialogue spoken as we, the audience are struggling to examine our own actions from moment to moment – this became an existential crisis of our own making!  Along the way, each person in our audience managed to shine while contributing to the solution of the mystery before us.  Building to a final moment that is both touching and poetically beautiful in some strange way, the entire audience was left grinning with satisfaction.

This show is truly a stroke of genius.

This needs to exist somewhere in the universe.  I genuinely hope this production returns to Fringe again in the future or finds a home somewhere else.  It’s a welcome new approach to the escape room genre and a damn fun way to take in a little Samuel Beckett.

(By the way, this was a last-minute ticket for me and I wound up sharing this experience with some familiar faces.  Bowler hats off to Lia, Chris, Kevin and the other audience members who helped make this such a treat!)


A Life Behind Bars

Storytelling can be casual.  It can be challenging.  It can be insightful.  Stories can be funny, sad, inspirational, depressing or so many other things.  When you find a performer who can seamlessly blend aspects of all the above into a single, insightful show… there is reason to celebrate.  Dan Ruth is such a performer.

This is a man who’s been around the streets and alleys of New York nightlife and he has absorbed the details and idiosyncrasies of the people he has mingled with there.  Weaving stories together that span a long series of jobs and multiple years working (and drinking) in all types of bars in a city that has all types of bars, Ruth reveals a fascinating life that holds surprising moments of highs and lows.

The beauty here is how every aspect of the show lands with honesty.  Each character demands to be heard in their own way and you want to spend time with most of them.  (Others, well… we’ve all run into some jerks at a local bar, right?  Those folks are here too and they have their place.)

By examining how he has been treated and how he has treated others over the course of serving so many so much, Ruth paints a self-portrait that is honest, self-effacing and bittersweet.

The show does not come off sounding like a message piece, but there is depth here.  It can be found in how we recognize in ourselves the acceptance or judgement of the people we meet… and of Dan Ruth himself.  So many of us are just working hard, getting through our days and making ends meet.   There is honor in that.  The trick is sometimes to maintain it all without cracking up, isn’t it?  Ruth has seen people at their best and worst and he obviously knows we all crack up a little at some point.  And… he’s there to sympathize or expose the truth as he sees appropriate.  It’s a wonderful thing to watch happen.

The story dwells on some dark personal times as the Brooklyn-based bartender manages to lose himself in a bottle or two along his journey.  His stories of the eccentric folks he serves, deals with, misleads or seduces always ring with truth.  Aided by subtle direction by Tanya Moberly, this show is a special night with a special performer,

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