Gowns, Masks, Horns, Boas, Corsets, Bustiers … and Rabbits

Co-director Kyle Johnston, center, gives a note prior to the dress and tech rehearsal.EXPAND
Co-director Kyle Johnston, center, gives a note prior to the dress and tech rehearsal.
Photo by Bill Raden

This is the third in our series of articles following one show through the Hollywood Fringe Festival. For the others, see:
The Gurus of the Hollywood Fringe Festival Explain How to Put on a Show
An Underground Acoustic Grindcore Death Metal Band Tries to Do…a Musical? 

A Monday evening in Hollywood is never the liveliest of nights for L.A.’s entertainment district — particularly for the seven-block stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard known as theater row, which generally has its sidewalks tightly rolled up by now. On Monday, June 8, however, the street is alive with masses of people converging on the various storefront theaters, where they jostle for place in snaking queues the likes of which are normally associated with movie openings or rock concerts.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival has officially arrived.

One of the longer lines stretches along Lillian Way as an opening-night crowd waits impatiently for the first performance of House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville, the lavish vaudevillian rock-musical extravaganza that has been created by the acoustic avant-rock band House of Rabbits, director Brandon Baruch, choreographers Angela Lopez and Andrea Luna and producer Max Oken. Baruch himself is at the head of the line, besieged by well-wishers and eager friends verifying that they have a coveted spot on the guest list.

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The night before, during the final tech rehearsals, company members mill about the stage, as they're being fitted into their fanciful costumes and elaborate masks by designer Laura Wong. Baruch and Oken look spent as they sit off to the side, taking a break during a lull. It was only that morning, they both agree, that they had the first glimmerings that Charivari in Voyeurville would live up to expectations.

“The run today was really the moment where we realized that we have a show,” Oken says. “It’s been a lot of pieces put together, and we watched it today and feel that we have a really good show now. It’s just a matter of working out some of the kinks and doing a little more tech."

Brandon Baruch, center, during a pause in the tech rehearsalEXPAND
Brandon Baruch, center, during a pause in the tech rehearsal
Photo by Bill Raden

“I didn’t see it becoming this wild,” Baruch marvels at the parade of costumed actors in front of him. “We’re finding moments that I didn’t originally see in the piece. … I originally thought it was going to be a much quieter, moodier piece. And now it’s becoming this really grotesque spectacle, which seems completely correct, but it snuck up on me.”

It’s 10 p.m. and the company has been going full bore since 10 that morning, when it had its first full run-through with the live band. Apart from the last-minute lighting tweaks being made by co-lighting designer Thomas Schneider (who shares the credit with Baruch), tonight’s tech will also serve as dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s public preview.

“My day actually started around 6 a.m.,” Oken sighs. “I had to get into the [Kirk] Douglas [Theatre, where he works as a facilities manager] to load out a previous show, and then arrange the rehearsal space so that we could be there. So it was a very early morning, and then straight after that I started finishing scenic elements.”

Tickets, he says, are moving well and the opening is nearly sold out. The fact that relatively few seats have been comped is a good omen. Particularly for the Fringe.

Designer Laura Wong (at right, with camera) makes last-minute adjustments prior to tech rehearsal.EXPAND
Designer Laura Wong (at right, with camera) makes last-minute adjustments prior to tech rehearsal.
Photo by Bill Raden

“It’s surprising for an opening,” Oken says. “Normally, I would say, [an opening night is] 50 percent paper" — meaning complimentary tickets. "This time it’s only about 20. So, I mean, we’ve got about 60 sold and 20 comped right now. I’m very confident the rest are going to sell.”

"We’ve got a nice house for tomorrow night," Baruch concurs. "But we have to take a lot of photos tonight and tomorrow, do a lot of video, have to post it every day. We have to get out there and meet people and continue kind of plugging the piece. And if we can get the sales to snowball, once they start snowballing, then we can relax a little bit. But until the last performance, I’m not really ever fully at peace.”

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The opening-night crowd suddenly surges forward as the Lillian Theater opens its doors. When they finally find their seats, it is evident that show has completely sold out as Oken predicted. In the darkness, company members strategically position themselves in aisles and the back of the house. Onstage, drummer Mike Caffell — wearing a horned mask — takes his seat at the kit and begins pounding out the raucously percussive overture as the stage lights come up.

House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville: the dress and tech rehearsalEXPAND
House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville: the dress and tech rehearsal
Photo by Bill Raden

What follows is a surreal riot of feather boas, satin breeches, colorful corsets, revealing bustiers and outlandish gowns as House of Rabbits singer Jess Gabriell Cron takes the stage, looking like a modern-day satyr in a black pinstripe suit and mask, and the ensemble emerges from around the house and launches into the show’s first gravity-defying, acrobatic dance sequence.

The band is tight and their musical performance is flawless as they run through a surprisingly accomplished, dozen-song set of what can only be described as mock-operatic cabaret rock. It is an impressively varied and fresh, high-energy score by any standard, full of engaging hooks and propelled by the rhythmic thrash of Andy Kovari’s acoustic guitar, keyboardist Ian Malcolm’s melodic counterpoint and Cron’s commanding vocals and stage presence.

Baruch has clearly placed the emphasis on momentum and on squeezing out every bit of spectacle that the Lillian is capable of delivering. That includes the flamboyant entrance of Cara Manuele as the show’s villainess, Lady Windowmirror — looking like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland — who haughtily makes her way down the stairway from the lighting booth. Or the show-stopping aerial dance performed by Ashley Elizabeth Allen and Stephen Beitler on silks rigged from the Lillian’s lighting grid.

Musicians Eloy Palacios, left, Ian Malcolm, Jess Gabriell Cron and Andy Kovari of the band House of Rabbits try on their masks.EXPAND
Musicians Eloy Palacios, left, Ian Malcolm, Jess Gabriell Cron and Andy Kovari of the band House of Rabbits try on their masks.
Photo by Bill Raden

The show clearly connects with the opening-night audience, which erupts into a hooting ovation after a frenzied, deadly climax.

But there is no time for the company to savor any accolades. This is the Fringe, after all, and the next show must go on. The audience is quickly herded out to the street, followed by the band and cast, who are now laden with set pieces and equipment as they carry out Baruch’s carefully drilled, 15-minute loadout onto the sidewalk.

House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville runs through June 27 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.


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