The Hollywood Fringe Festival is underway. Filling the month of June with hundreds of shows in a dizzying array of formats and genres, the heart of Hollywood becomes a social hub for theater fans and a congested scene of cars searching for convenient parking. Concentrating less on seeing a huge number of shows this year, seeking out subject matter that is particularly intriguing or challenging has become my goal for this season. Here is a look at what I have checked out so far… -Russell
An American Video Store
An affectionate tribute as well as an insightful examination on how the trend of VHS / DVD rental stores shaped a generation, this play balances nostalgia and heartfelt character studies to explore the value of tradition and ritual. Even if it’s something as simple as renting a movie.
As An American Video Store begins to unfold, a Narrator (played by writer/director Thomas J Wortham) fills us in on the history of Blockbuster Video. Touching lightly on the collapse of mom-and-pop video stores that Blockbuster nearly crushed with its explosive expansion, the play seems, at first, to only be aimed at a specific trend in America’s history of physical media. Very quickly, though, we meet the characters of John (Jeff Coppage), Leah (Aidan Rees) and her younger sister Rachel (Kristin Morris) as one of those Blockbuster stores first opens.
What this play manages to deftly convey is the importance video stores actually played in the structure of some families and what it represented to die-hard regular customers. Leah and Rachel don’t just want to rent a movie… they NEED to rent a movie. The simple act of renting a video could, at some point in the past, mean escape, education, or maybe even lead to romance if you pressed “PLAY” at the appropriate time. Using the Narrator to bridge time-jumps in the story, we hear genuinely interesting information about the development and demise of Blockbuster Video. The heart of this story, though, is how one store affected the lives of some customers deeply and meaningfully. The entire cast plays it all sincerely and effectively. That includes a rather odd almost supernatural twist near the end that works mainly because of incredibly heartfelt work by actresses Aiden Rees and Kristin Morris. An American Video Store manages to move us as well as entertain us with a rather fascinating history of the rise and fall of a brand name. It’s not an insignificant tale and writer/director Wortham has managed to make that point in a sweet, heartfelt manner. If you’ve ever browsed the isles of a video store wondering what to rent on a Friday night… you’ll get it… you’ll feel it. If you haven’t done that, it might open your eyes to a piece of American culture (good or bad) that will never ever return.
Son of a Bitch
Calling itself a “work of historical fiction“ this new play by Lucy Gillespie traces the rise of Lee Atwater. If you don’t recognize that name… he’s one of the guys that helped get George H.W. Bush elected. Atwater is played by Ben Hethcoat as an energetic, charming, mischievous “strategist” who repeatedly proves himself to be a master of reading any opposing team and capitalizing on all of their weaknesses. It does not matter if the playing field is a bar or an election. In a fast-paced 90 minutes, we are treated to glimpses into various points of Atwater’s rise in politics, stepping on toes and offending coworkers and the American public alike.
The entire cast strikes the perfect tone of caricature and sincerity. You believe in these people as they believe in their motivations. Portraying George H.W. Bush as an old-fashioned politician and good man who doesn’t want to fight dirty, Dennis Gersten manages to bring a befuddled humanity to a character who would have been easy to parody or vilify. Paired with Hethcoat’s performance providing a rock solid base the entire show rests on, the cast manages to offer up a fascinating tussle of wills and moral stances. The natural charm Atwater exudes wins the audience over even as he’s making some truly questionable points on the exploitation of human nature.
Overall, this show manages to make some very astute observations about our nation’s political past that absolutely paved the road to an America that feels so divided today. Without ever feeling like a period piece, this show (well-directed by Billy Ray Brewton) is a fascinating, raucous view into who we are now as a nation and where we might have made mistakes in the past to get us here. One of the longer shows at Fringe, this thing moves at a breakneck speed and I actually wanted more information in the final scenes. The supporting cast of Chloe Dworkin, Corsica Wilson and Luke Forbes are all equally strong, with David McElwee particularly relatable as a campaign manager who always seems flummoxed by Atwater’s shenanigans. Perhaps he represents the American voter of today?
A dark drama that goes to tragic places, Tommy’s Room is a sometimes harrowing piece that shows no fear in tackling some very controversial subject matter. The result is a disturbing thrill ride of dramatic theater.
Tommy (Connor Sheehan) has been a long time friend of Pete (Jesse Stevenson). They survived high school together and now find themselves on the same college campus.
Hanging out in Tommy‘s dorm room for an afternoon, the two do basic guy stuff for the first half of the show. Reluctantly, laundry is done. Video games are played. Trash talk is… well… talked. Lots of it, too.
However, there is an obvious underlying tension to this friendship, with Pete slowly revealing of building aggravation at certain attitudes Tommy has been displaying for years. Revealing why these two friends – who are not alike in many ways – manage to stay friends is just a set up for a sudden, furious release of pent up anger. It is a drastic and disturbing change in tone for the piece when it happens.
There are some references to modern headlines, including mass shootings and various hate crimes which effectively foreshadow an incredibly disturbing ending. (Trust me – that’s not a spoiler, it is not what you might be thinking.) To be honest, I found the references unnecessary. These two characters are fascinating enough that I think the play could omit those topical references and be just as effective. I do not want to give a clue as to how these two friends challenge each other head to head. The cast is plenty effective and convey such believable angst and awkwardness as things develop, I was so completely engaged by them that I didn’t need anything other than what was going on between them. But, hey, obviously writer/director Don Storm and his cast are passionately aiming to explore a disturbing aspect of our current culture. Maybe a more subtle approach would not be more effective. Kudos to all them for what is going on here.
As the play comes to a close each character explores deeply rooted frustrations and trauma that make them who they are right now. In the final act of this story, I actually wanted it to go on longer… I wanted these guys to explore those realizations even more. I think that feeling is simply the result of the show fitting into the standard hour-long Fringe Fest timeslot. When Pete comes to the conclusion he must take a specific action to prove a point to his friend, Tommy, watching that scene is truly a punch to the gut – and its effectiveness is a direct result of the performances of the two actors involved. I know a longer scene would have made the last few minutes even harder to watch, as is the ending of this is absolutely harsh and resonates long after the show ends. Even so, I felt that these characters deserved more time to come to terms with seeing themselves in a new light. The ending felt slightly rushed, and any drama willing to explore this sort of tragic circumstance as honestly as this play is trying to do deserves a longer showcase and I hope that this piece gets one in the future. From this year’s Fringe, this is perhaps the show I have thought the most about since it ended.
The Pod is a short science fiction piece that is presented as a one-on-one immersive experience. As a “candidate” for a specific mission, you are invited to meet the new A.I. being (a robot called Model AR9-800E) created by Marcora Robotics. But, we get to call her, “Ellie.”
After an extremely effective set up inside a waiting area, Dr. Malin (Nick Rheinwald-Jones) explains the scenario to you and asks that you do your best to “react honestly” to whatever happens when you spend time with the robot, Ellie. His sincere, affable demeanor puts you at ease. There is an end-of-show revelation that adds even more depth to his intentions and the piece overall.
That robot, played with humor, compassion and intensity by Katelyn Schiller, is observing you as you are observing it. Its goal is to become more human appearing, your goal is to react as if it were human. The exchange you share is witty, odd, confusing and entirely charming. In under 20 minutes, everything in this production from the sound, lighting and modest set create an environment that allows you to completely buy into the situation. Add to that Schiller’s intense performance, this is a unique and fun experience. At times, I found myself laughing, then suddenly being rather moved.
Written and directed by Nick Rheinwald-Jones and Schiller herself, together they have managed to create a piece that makes you think at the same time it is asking a universal question – what makes us human? Simple in construct, complicated in themes and intent, this is something special.
Moral Fixation (or Boys Will Be Boys)
An intense exploration of the politics and complications of romance, Moral Fixation shines as a very special drama. This piece is almost a novelty at Fringe – believable adults having realistic, awkward, uncomfortable conversations about sex and it’s meaning. What is emotional value of sex in a relationship? How much should previous relationships influence your current relationship? Why do we feel the way we do about those we want to be intimate with? How do we form the moral compass each one of us has? And… is it valid?
Caleb and Claire (portrayed by Cara Loften and Gabriel A. Berkovich – both also share writing credit), are a couple dealing with sobriety and life’s stresses in general. Obviously affectionate, obviously right for each other. When a piece of information from Caleb‘s past becomes known, it threatens the relationship they both thought was going along fine. The questions is WHY does it endanger the relationship and can the two lovers ever come to an agreement about what the past means to them in the present?
The joy here is just watching a top-notch cast deal with a top-notch script.. Completely believable in every aspect, the complicated discussions about how each person feels about sex are exciting and relatable. The fact that Claire cannot pinpoint or clearly express why her emotions are reeling over Caleb’s past is fascinating to watch. To be honest, this sort of exploration in a play is my favorite type of theater. Complicated and awkward, this show wants you to question the characters and yourself. I actually heard a couple of gasps coming from the audience which, I believe, were people recognizing themselves in what was going on.
In particular, the scenes between Caleb and Claire shift from hopeful optimism to serious doubt – of each other and themselves – but can also feel genuinely romantic or even titillating and the actors carry them off like seasoned tightrope walkers.
Offered strong support by the additional cast members Veronica Alicino, Bill Dwyer and Kate Robertson, this ensemble comes together perfectly. The characters challenge each other and question each other on fronts where there are no easy answers. This is the type of show that makes you think about your own values and you want to talk about it with others after you’ve seen it.
Monsters of Man – A Supernatural Anthology
A horror anthology is certainly territory worth exploring. However, like many anthologies, Monsters of Man is a mixture of successes and failures. Working best during its most sincere emotional moments – a group of people in jeopardy discovering who they may or may not trust among themselves, for example – the effective cast manages to create some legitimate moments of tension and empathy. The highlight, perhaps, is a blind date where the longing of one person can only be eased by following some very strict boundaries.
The weaker moments are sketches or monologues that are so vague it’s hard to empathize with the character or draw any emotional conclusion about their plight or situation. Social commentary is definitely present and sometimes effective, especially in a sequence where social media manages to blind a young woman to the dangers of greed and fame-hunting. Other scenarios involving waiting rooms or mysterious gates do not succeed as well. It does not help that the evening is arranged where some of the weaker pieces happen later in the show. It’s nice to see horror being explored on stage but this show is a very mixed bag due to inconsistent quality and tone.
If attending Hells Finest, I recommend getting there a little early. The program is dense and well worth reading from cover to cover. It sets up a fascinating premise involving a mischievous cult and its current leader who feels he’s about to get a job promotion. There’s a moment before entering the theater where audience members are asked to “categorize” themselves – it’s a fun conversation starter, for sure. The show that follows, however, doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the premise.
Billed as an “immersive theater” piece – it isn’t immersive. This obviously frustrated some people at the performance I attended as the show was discussed outside the venue afterwards. The show is barely interactive, at best.
The play never manages to find a consistent tone. A couple performers are camping it up while others are playing it straight. It’s not wild enough to be a comedy, but there’s too many wacky antics for it to be a drama or horror. There is some violence but is staged so fast and cartoony it has no real impact. The end result is that an audience has a hard time caring about anything going on. Or, figure out why they are witnessing this gathering… there are references to a congregation multiple times but what unfolds does not seem to affect the audience. Also, there is a last-minute plot twist which is fairly obvious about halfway through the show if you pay attention. The cast is giving it their all, but doesn’t seem to know or agree on what they’re giving it for… it’s an interesting effort that ends up falling flat.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival runs through June 30th at various venues throughout Hollywood. Check out their website and grab a ticket to something that interests you!