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Fringe on the Top

Medea on the Fringe
PHOTO COURTESY OF PAPERSTRANGERS PERFORMANCE GROUP

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.

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.

 

We're made up of mostly water, she says, and the liquid looks so clean. Like us, however, it's not necessarily as it appears.

1 p.m. — Barely made it to Theatre Asylum for Australian actor Leof Kingsford-Smith solo performance of Gerry Greenland's biographical Mission of Flowers, based on the life and diary of English-Australian aviator Bill Lancaster. Alan Walpole's set creates a kind of cart carved from the imagined wreckage of Lancaster's plane, which has crashed in the Sahara in 1933. And there's that image of water once more as the essence of what we are.

Lancaster sits preserving energy, and crossing off chalk lines on a water canteen as day after day tick by, with flickering fading hope that his flares will be noticed by nearby pilots. The play is a fever dream, as Lancaster awaits rescue. For a fever, however, it sure is a straightforward and rational account of the guy's memories, including his affair with a flame — female aviator Chubby Miller — for whom Lancaster divorced his wife. A mutual American friend then struck up a romance with Chubby and issues of betrayal, murder and/or suicide percolate.

Kingsford-Smith gives a tenderly rendered portrayal of haughty adventurer who runs out of adventures, under Damien Lay's direction. When he smacks his lips, you can feel that blistering Sahara heat.

2:30 p.m. — If you think the Sahara is barren, you should try find a decent lunch near Santa Monica and Vine, especially when you have 30 minutes between shows. That's an aspect of the festival worth working on. Where's a good illegal street vendor when you need one?

Returned to Theatre Asylum for a Chicago import, Sideway Theater and Taco Dog Productions production of Sue Cargill's Feeling Sorry for Roman Polanski, an amusing comedy about victims and the people who love them. Amid kitchen banter between a gossipy wife, Myrna (Danielle Fink) and her forlorn husband, Bink (Michael Whitney), Bink reveals how his energetic performance of singing a telegram in a gorilla suit induced a fatal seizure in the almost 90-year-old recipient of his entertainment.

As Bink faces the loss of his job and some guilt, even his wife starts to subtly blame him. She can't do anything but side with victims; this includes an impassioned and slightly goofy defense of her favorite director, Roman Polanski, attributing his alleged molestation of a 13-year-old girl to his harrowing upbringing during the Holocaust, and the trauma of the Sharon Tate murders.

The droll humor spins in circles for a bit too long under Michael A. Stock's direction, until Bink chooses to visit the deceased woman's nephew (Joel Brady), her only living relative, at her funeral.

"I've decided not to sue you or your company," is supposed to be good news from the nephew, leading instead to Bink's questioning the nephew as to why, exactly, he chose to hire a guy in a gorilla suit to deliver a greeting to a woman so obviously frail — a reasonable question that shifts responsibility back to where it would belong in a rational world. But Cargill's world, in her intriguing play with competent performances, is far from rational.

5 p.m. — The British Invasion features a series of stand-up comedians from Britain at IDA on Hollywood Boulevard. I caught the duo of Simon Feilder and Sy Thomas in their act, Life of Si, like a British reincarnation of the Smothers Brothers — amiable, eccentric, self-deprecating and squabbling like children over issues of profound import, such as which lines were actually said in James Bond flicks, and whether there's time to get the entire audience a cup of tea.

It's an act of delightfully nutty repartee, and is gently mocking of stand-up comedy conventions. One plays a heckler with strategically witless insults. I particularly liked an opening video sequence in which the duo tried to pass off what was obviously London for L.A. — "city of angles." Standing in front of the Houses of Parliament, they were thrilled at finally being at L.A.'s "city hall," and showing a McDonald's logo upside down; they veritably gloated at relaxing at the "W" hotel, "here on Hollywood Boulevard!"

7 p.m. — Back at Theatre Asylum, more water: The allegory of a raindrop seeking a puddle to land in anchors what starts as a marionette show in Bye-Bye, Bombay, Cara Yeates performs her solo show about defying her Indo-Canadian mother by visiting, and reliving, her mom's Bollywood experiences in Bombay.

Ably supported by Cameron Avery's video design and Sylvan Sailly's animation, the saga tells of a surreal descent into a world of incomprehensible poverty, cruelty and transcendent mysticism. A capable performance about forging an identity, it echoes the shape of del Valle's journey in Brownsville Bred.

 

9 p.m. — In Hollywood's Deep South (L.A. ComedySportz Theater on Seward near Melrose), Les Kurkendaal's solo performance in Christmas in Bakersfield recounts his visit to his boyfriend's family in "California's armpit," at their Bakersfield manse. They knew their son was gay, but he'd neglected to tell them that his lover was black. And in a slightly mannered style that stresses clarity over mystery, Kurkendaal proffers a compendium of bigotry and homophobia, through which Kurkendaal is still able to win them over — even terrifying "Grandma," whose very name sparks alarming noises over the sound system.

It's a sweet tale that aims to cut to the humanity of bigots and homophobes. Forgive them, Lord. They know not what they do.

10:30 p.m. — Back to Theatre of NOTE for Kimleigh Smith's T-O-T-A-L-L-Y! — the one-person grown-up version of the kids' show that started the day. Smith portrays herself as a 17-year-old virgin, an ingratiating cheerleader who speaks in Valley-girl cadences, where every sentence is peppered with "totally." She endures a gang rape and the eventual recovery of her sexuality, which was shut down after the attack.

This is the formula for what could have been the worst one-woman show ever seen; it's actually among the best, thanks entirely to Smith's superhuman vivacity, her blistering sense of humor, in which, with considerable physical heft, she performs those ridiculous high school cheers in a teensy, revealing skirt with a mania that crosses deep into mockery. She is without shame, and she's earned that right. There's not a trace of self-pity; rather, superhero determination.

And when she details her technique for seducing a lover, the result is one of the most erotic and funniest scenes you'll find on any stage, anywhere. Paula Killen directs, and obviously knows exactly what she's doing.

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