We Followed One Show Through the Hollywood Fringe Fest. Here's How It Ended

Max Oken schmoozes up Lost Moon Radio star Lauren Flans at Fringe Central.
Max Oken schmoozes up Lost Moon Radio star Lauren Flans at Fringe Central.
Photo by Bill Raden

This is the last 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? 

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

It’s June 19, a Friday evening, and the Dragonfly, the converted Santa Monica Boulevard dive bar that is serving as Fringe Central, pulsates with life. There are actors, some still in stage makeup, plus theatergoers, loud music and the raucous social roar one might expect to encounter when Los Angeles’ biggest annual theater festival lets its hair down and parties.

It’s the second weekend of the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival and the mammoth stage celebration is in full throttle.

Out in the people-packed back alley that is doubling as a smoking lounge and beer garden, producer Max Oken and director Brandon Baruch are holding court. However, for the duo who created House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville, the vaudevillian rock & roll dance operetta that is already more than halfway through its Fringe run, Fringe Central is never only about the party.

Though the opening preview came off to everyone’s satisfaction, and the subsequent evenings have generated enthusiastic notices on the Fringe review site, tonight is about filling still-empty seats for the remaining two performances. The two men have been assiduously seeing the scores of other productions by Fringe friends that are a critical part of the quid pro quo that’s so crucial to generating show buzz. One of the most ubiquitous questions overheard at the Fringe is: “What have you seen that’s good?” And Oken and Baruch are determined that Charivari becomes the oft-heard answer.

Cara Manuele, left, and Jess Gabriell Cron perform House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville.EXPAND
Cara Manuele, left, and Jess Gabriell Cron perform House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville.
Photo by Daniel Colmenares

Soon Baruch is off to satisfy yet another Fringe-friend show obligation, and Oken casts his practiced eye over the crowded bar, sizing up likely prospects. Though the tickets have been “flying,” the producer is still concerned about ensuring a sellout.

“I need to still do some legwork for our last show,” he explains over the din, “because I’m a person who’s not happy until all the seats are gone. … Even at this point, what I’m doing now is just keeping the momentum going. I’m not going to stop, because, one, I believe in the show; two, I believe in the idea of this kind of show being very successful and impactful on the L.A. theater community. And, three, I want something like this to continue no matter what in some incarnation.”

Oken’s secret weapons tonight will be his approachable, personal charm and the oversized shoebox he carries with him. It’s an awkward yet icebreaking conversation piece that is calculated to provoke curiosity, attract new acquaintances and raise the inevitable question, “What’s in the box?” Ask it, and you’ll quickly find one of the 2,500 show postcards concealed within thrust into your hand, along with Oken’s well-rehearsed pitch about “this little show that we’re doing.”

He begins to methodically work his way through the crowd like a congressional candidate at a political fundraiser. The first couple he approaches turns out to be return customers, ordinary civilians who came to Charivari’s opening on a whim, liked what they saw and came back a second time with six friends. Oken gives them cards anyway. He then moves on to chat up actor Ezra Buzzington, a Fringe insider and influential opinion-maker in the community. “Ezra was there the first night,” Oken explains. “Ezra can’t say enough good things about the show.”

Fringe Central evenings like this turn out to be essential to the buzz blitz required to fill houses with audiences and lay the groundwork for the awards that cap each year’s festival, which this year will be held at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in a mere nine days. Oken had made certain that the entire Charivari cast showed up at the festival’s opening-night party at Fringe Central to fan the enthusiasm generated by the preview.

Stephen Beitler, left, Judyth Brooke, Dana Benedict, Cara Manuele, Themba Alleyne and Ashley Elizabeth AllenEXPAND
Stephen Beitler, left, Judyth Brooke, Dana Benedict, Cara Manuele, Themba Alleyne and Ashley Elizabeth Allen
Photo by Daniel Colmenares

“Everybody was here," he recalls. "There were people in costume, and we made a lot of friends that night, because we stayed until the cows went home. That really helped. Because then we started to see a lot of movement [in ticket sales]."

Then Oken zeroes in on a stylishly attractive woman ordering a drink halfway down the bar. This time he strikes paydirt. She turns out to be Tracey Paleo, the reporter-critic-editor for the widely read Los Angeles theater and performing arts website Gia on the Move. Paleo accepts a card, and Oken walks away with her promise to see the show.

***

It's Saturday, June 27, a week later. It is apparent that Oken’s salesmanship has paid off. The overflows had already forced him to add an additional row of chairs to the Lillian Theater’s 99-seat house, and tonight’s attendance for the final performance of Charivari in Voyeurville is standing room only.

When the lights come up, it is immediately obvious that no one has been resting on any laurels over the past three weeks. Both the dance and acting performances are dramatically more confident and finely tuned than on preview night, and House of Rabbits is red-hot; neither lead singer Jess Gabriell Cron nor the band misses a beat when he is forced to appropriate guitarist Andy Kovari’s mic after Cron’s wireless malfunctions — the only wrinkle that materializes during the entire night.

The audience is wowed and gives a drawn-out standing ovation.

For once, there is no post-show load-out anxiety. It’s nearly 1 a.m. and Charivari was the final show of the night at the Lillian. So Oken assembles the full company onstage and begins popping corks on half a dozen bottles of Champagne for a round of toasts and emotional speechifying.

We Followed One Show Through the Hollywood Fringe Fest. Here's How It EndedEXPAND
Photo by Daniel Colmenares

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Then it’s on to Fringe Central, where Baruch pulls rank to get the group past the doorman for last call. As the cast parties, the director watches from the side, beaming like a proud parent at his child’s college graduation. He is mainly relieved, he says, to finally be clear of the stress of the 15-minute load-in/load-outs and the selling of tickets — the strain of playing the Hollywood Fringe game.

“Now I’m done,” he sighs. “And now I can just enjoy this festival and breathe for a day. But it was fun to have that final performance, and to really go out with such a crazy crowd — and a beautiful ovation — and go out on a high note and say, ‘OK!’”

Oken is a bit more philosophical. “You know,” he reflects, “it’s always a risk when you choose to work with people you have not actually worked with before. And when you find that you’re working with people who have just as much passion and desire to make the piece everything it could be, you’ve not only made friends for life, you’ve pushed people further and they’ve pushed you further. It’s very euphoric.”

***
It is now Monday, June 29, the day after the festival awards ceremony, and the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival is officially history. Though Charivari in Voyeurville racked up a slew of nominations, it failed to take home any trophies in the main competition, including Best in Musicals & Operas. That award went to the slick but far more conventional musical satire King of Kong: A Musical Parody.

On the phone, Baruch says the lack of awards was disappointing, especially for the band and some of the cast. But he is stoical, pointing out that a good part of Charivari’s audience came from the rock-club scene rather than the theater.

“Knowing how the awards work,” he offers, “that limited the number of people who were eligible to vote for us. And it’s also a piece that doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone. But because it’s a challenging piece, and because it is kind of genre-defying, it was pretty cool to see that enough people liked us to get the nomination.”

Oken, who is satisfied that Charivari managed to show black ink on its books, agrees that the lack of recognition by awards voters was to be expected. “The show’s very unique,” he says, “not regular theater. In fact, it’s hard to even classify it as theater in the traditional sense. … And to be honest, in that category, I feel like King of Kong is a better [fit]. They deserved the award. I feel that we got miscategorized somehow. We should have been more in the physical-theater vein.”

In fact, Charivari did take home something that in its own way is a more appropriate — and certainly more useful — honor: A sponsored Encore Producer’s Award from the underground music club and avant-garde stage Bootleg Theater. That means the show will see three more performances (July 16-18) at the Westlake venue, which shares Charivari’s raison d’être of bridging the stubbornly mutually exclusive L.A. music and theater scenes.

Oken, left, makes with the closing-night Champagne.
Oken, left, makes with the closing-night Champagne.
Photo by Bill Raden

“And the nicest thing about the extension is that it gives me the chance to go back in," Baruch says. "There are moments that I think, now that we have this opportunity, why not use it to continue polishing the piece?”

Awards, he adds, are "certainly great on press releases and for future work. But for my purposes, Hollywood Fringe is about letting me explore.”

House of Rabbits: Charivari in Voyeurville plays July 16, 17 and 18 at Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake. bootlegtheater.org.


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