Wrapping up its third season on Sunday, the 2012 Hollywood Fringe — a three-week binge of affordable comedy, theater, music and film, with 200 noncurated events within one square mile of Hollywood — is showing all the good signs of an organization that's growing at a measured pace, steadily gathering the kind of institutional support that can make it a fixture, if not a tradition.
The festival rattled its own nerves by vying for and, at the last moment, meeting a $20,000 goal on Kickstarter.com.
Festival director Ben Hill said that monies also came in from a special City Council fund, as well as from the city's Department of Cultural Affairs; that funds were pending from the County Arts Commission; and that attendance this year was trending 50 percent above last year. (The second year's attendance doubled that of the inaugural season.)
The organization itself subleased a few venues this year (Open Fist Theatre and Theatre of NOTE, plus the rental of Elephant Stages' studio space for a film series).
Next door to Theatre Asylum on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine Street is Fringe Central Station, which features a cabaret space and a watering hole called Bryan's Bar and, during prime hours, a food truck in the alley.
The best news from this casual observer is that scheduling, start times, ticketing and other administrative challenges ran almost seamlessly, with a welcome topping of cheerful courtesy from the volunteer staff.
You have to be an asshole not to love this festival, which is the embodiment of free-market supply and demand. Troupes are here from around the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
You want to put on a show? No curator, producer, literary director or agent is going to block you from getting it onstage here.
Every time I run into Hill or his wife, press rep Stacy Jones, at the festival, they both look like they've just walked through a giant meat grinder, somehow having avoided being struck by the blades. They share a dazed expression, the culmination of eight months of prep. Jones keeps breaking away to text on her Android phone, while Hill musters the grin of a carnival barker, citing this year's improved stats over last. This is the kind of focused, tireless energy that has made — and will make — the Hollywood Fringe enduring.
I like the idea of the Fringe more than most of the shows I see there, but that's to be expected for many of the reasons cited above. The delight is in the discovery.
As in any open market, the quality work often emerges through the clutter — though I dread thinking about the gems we may have missed. Even with extra critics and more than double our typical number of reviews, we could still cover only slightly more than one-fifth of the offerings.
In the solo performance category, Eric Davis' Red Bastard stood out for being so smart and smart-ass. In a red body stocking, puffed out so the clown resembled a stuffed chicken, Davis moved as gingerly as a dancer for his one-hour improv/Dr. Phil therapy session with an audience of 20-somethings too enthusiastic for their own good.
He backed into one poor fellow, ramming his balloon-inflated buttocks into the guy's face and forcing him to pluck out a $5 bill from the crack as a reward for his humiliation. The Red Bastard solicited "dreams" before mocking them as commonplace and provincial. He asked who in the audience hates their jobs. One guy said he worked in law enforcement but as an administrator. "What's your job title?" the Bastard asked him. "Pussy?"
This is not a mentor I want giving me counsel, yet this Bastard, like all great clowns, tells the truth.
Lina Alfinito presented solo performance Confessions of the World's Worst Missionary (directed by Andrea Adnoff), the autobiographical saga of her sojourn from Azusa Pacific University to work briefly as a Christian missionary in South Africa. Alfinito wore a T-shirt extolling the virtues of sarcasm, but if she wants to know what sarcasm is, she should meet the Red Bastard.
Her style strained for a kind of world-weariness: How could God allow a man to die in such preventable anguish from the country's raging epidemic of HIV/AIDS? No, this show wasn't sarcastic but earnest and endearing — a young woman from Azusa had the guts to get out of SoCal and see how most of the world really lives, and dies. That tale she presents, in an articulate and sometimes mannered way, conveying her remaining, admirable bafflement at the human condition.
I liked Alfinito's show a lot, though it was good afterwards to see a show written and performed by grown-ups: Director Lee Costello and performer Margot Avery tried out Annie Lux's one-woman play The Portable Dorothy Parker as a workshop. This portrait of Dot Parker, reminiscing on the who's who of her era, has legs — primarily for its ability to defy presumptions.
Lux's droll Parker expresses dismay that she's going to be remembered for a line as prosaic as "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." The show's premise is an interview with a young (offstage) editor from Viking Press for a compendium of the wit's best works. ("Why don't you take notes, dear, it'll make you feel important." ) Parker was fired as a critic for writing in a review, "She looks like a two-dollar whore who once commanded five," when the producer threatened to pull ads. Critic Alexander Woollcott described her as a cross between Little Nell and Lady Macbeth, and that blend comes through deliciously, in the play and in its presentation.
Two shows that branched out beyond one performer were noteworthy for their treatment of celebrity in Hollywood: One was the world premiere of Jon Courie's Jennifer Aniston Stole My Life, a latter-day House of Blue Leaves in its depiction of desperation bordering on delirium among wannabes in North Hollywood. The situation's faux good cheer was distressingly well-observed under Deborah Geffner's staging.
No time for regrets in Brooke Forbes, Michael Bachmann and Kate Bowman's Natasha Mail Order Bride Escape to America: The Musical, a 30-minute romp featuring buxom blonde Forbes as Natasha from Crapistan, aiming to be a cross between Glee and I Love Lucy. The camp-fest has 'Tasha landing in Bel Air, 'Tasha getting thrown off a red carpet during a celebrity fundraiser, 'Tasha scouring Chinatown in search of representation. (Somebody told her she needed an agent, and she heard "Asian.") Cheeky, frothy and almost pointless, it might well become a hit television series.
There also was a pair of memorable performances in impressively scripted plays by writer-directors: John Sinner's If Water Were Present, It Would Be Like Drowning and Colin Mitchell's Mission to Mate.
Betsy Moore plays out the diary of a mad housewife, Lolly, in the former, with fierce intensity. Above her is a video (by Carol Gehring) of a stove, seemingly static until you realize — as Lolly describes her estrangement and her visits to a tawdry motel room just to get out of the house and away from her adopted kids — that the stove top appears to be melting. Throughout, her husband (Paul Tucci), in a mask, a bowler hat and pin-striped suit, sits in their home dozing with newspaper in hand. The dreamy, poetical quality of the writing and of the imagery is beyond reproach.
It does, however, all seem vaguely retro, as though Lolly is Nora Helmer from Ibsen's A Doll's House, or perhaps Beckett's Winnie in Happy Days.
Mitchell's triptych of plays all feature Alla Poberesky in powerhouse performances, with a voice that morphs from silk to gravel. Poberesky and scene partner Michael Sanchez play out a series of courtships, centered on the male character's virginity. Poberesky swings from a rape victim to a crazed Russian cellist to an Angeleno just dumped by her boyfriend.
The plays drive from a Rod Serling–like mystery (one of the playlets refers to a lost Serling manuscript), propelled by unexpected comebacks and situations, absurdist, romantic and caustic, that won't let go.
The third annual Hollywood Fringe runs through June 24. Visit hollywoodfringe.org.