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Fringe on the Top 

L.A.'s first noncurated arts festival is a triumph

Thursday, Jun 24 2010

The first Hollywood Fringe Festival is still in full swing and its initial weekend portended the best news in a theater season of dreary setbacks.

Three years in the planning, Hollywood Fringe is modeled after the grandfather of fringe festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe. That Scottish bash was conceived in 1947, when eight theater troupes showed up to the Edinburgh International Festival uninvited and put on their plays in venues they rented.

It was a rebellion of sorts against the curatorial exclusiveness of the established festival circuit. The result, more than 50 years later: a sleepy Scottish city transformed every year into a madhouse of performance and a crush of visitors — performances in attics and basements, rehearsal halls and churches. Stilt walkers travel the streets, hawking acts down the alley, starting in 10 minutes.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO COURTESY OF PAPERSTRANGERS PERFORMANCE GROUP - Medea on the Fringe
  • Medea on the Fringe

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This swirl of stand-up and solo performances and musical parodies, puppet shows and street clowns competes against the festival "proper," which features the likes of Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki, Peter Stein, Herbert von Karajan, Pina Bausch and other superstars of world culture.

L.A. has no such established international festival to serve as a backdrop. But Hollywood Fringe's purpose isn't a response to curatorial exclusivity, given that anybody can do pretty much anything they want on L.A.'s stages year-round.

So what purpose does an L.A. Fringe festival serve?

The crisis of our theater, not unlike our city, is one of definition. You may have seen the cartoon of the tourist up to his knees in the ocean, with a map of Los Angeles, asking "And where is the center?"

We have the right to be apologists for a megalopolis built in a desert, where one city blurs into the next, as fame blurs into anonymity, as spring blurs into summer with only the subtlest of distinctions.

There's a certain existential beauty in all of that. Yet, with the passing decades, numerous, serious-theater practitioners have found staging theater productions in America's film capital as frustrating as trying to build snowmen in the tropics. They seem to start melting, even before the closing curtain, despite those coveted reviews in Variety or the Times.

The Hollywood Fringe organizers made a couple of strategic decisions that cemented its larger purpose. First, it's a 10-day blitz of performances, which defines it in a time frame with dramatic intensity.

Second, they've restricted it to approximately one square mile of Hollywood, extending from Hollywood Boulevard to Melrose Avenue, between Highland Avenue and Vine Street. That solves the curse of our expansive geography, which has had such a lethal effect on past festivals.

This inaugural year features over 160 performances, including some from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The printed program was mostly comprehensive and accurate. The shows I saw started within two minutes of their announced curtain time, which, on Saturday alone, allowed me to see eight performances in 14 hours. Staff was courteous and efficient — for lack of a better word, professional.

Our theater has been defined, wrongly, as being a hobby, an afterthought, an apology for the film and TV industries. This may have been valid 20 years ago, but that misperception has been fading. The Hollywood Fringe, if it's allowed to continue, will help to usher our city's theater from adolescence to young adulthood, where it's no longer suffering the pangs of identity crises.

What I saw of the festival revealed organization and discipline to match the artistry on the stages.

I went from venue to venue on a bicycle. Here's my Saturday log:

10 a.m. — Theatre of NOTE: Pacoima-based The Unusual Suspects presents Love Has No Gender, written and performed by local youth, with guidance from adult artists, in a program supported by El Nido Family Centers and the office of City Councilman Richard Alarcón. They've performed this show before in a 500-seat high school gymnasium, they said in a postperf discussion. But here in intimate confines, they can be heard. In the story, two Latino families grapple with immigration, drug abuse and daughters who are a little too close for their families' comfort. But things work out in the end. The acting is remedial, and it doesn't matter a jot. What matters is the postplay confession of sweet Sandra Gonzalez, who played one of the leads, that — midsentence she teared up — "everyone here is so friendly."

11:45: Back to Theatre of NOTE, it's also back to a rough part of a different town in Brownsville Bred, a one-woman show "written, performed and lived" by Elaine del Valle. With fashion-model beauty and a smile that could melt iron, Puerto Rican del Valle tells a mostly affectionate tale of living in and breaking out of the Brooklyn housing projects where she grew up. She mocks her own smile when, in trouble, she grins maniacally. Del Valle shares a generic saga of triumph over family trauma, drug addition, illness and would-be rapists, with her infectious charm, which washes away the script's shortcomings. She has a squeaky voice that can also become tinged with a growl, hinting at the ferocity mingled with the sweetness of her portrayal.

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