The second in our series of stories following one show through the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
It is Saturday, May 30, and the atmosphere inside the CTG rehearsal annex is decidedly more charged than two weeks ago when House of Rabbits – Charivari in Voyeurville, the Hollywood Fringe-bound “rock musical masquerade,” seemed comfortably removed from its now suddenly impending June 8 opening.
“It’s crunch time,” admits director Brandon Baruch. “And yes, I think that everyone is aware that the deadline is looming, and that we’re all feeling it, but no one’s panicking. They trust me, and I trust them, because I know they want this to work and I know that if something isn’t working, they will find a way to fix it.”
Fixing is the order of the day. After three weeks of painstaking work, the first full run-through is set for the following Tuesday and the first tech in the actual theater two days after that. So Baruch splits the company into separate teams in order to squeeze the most from the four hours of rehearsal time that producer Max Oken has wheedled out of Center Theater Group, in the company's annex space (Oken's day job is for CTG).
Choreographers Angela Lopez and Andrea Luna head to an outdoor patch of AstroTurf in the courtyard, where they begin working the kinks out of an acrobatic sex number called “Madame Orifices,” with actor Cory Storey as the show’s protagonist, Mr. Skimmington, and dancer Cloie Wyatt Taylor as his procuress-lover, Madame Lapin. Meanwhile, Baruch and associate producer Kyle Johnston fine-tune the blocking of the opening commedia-styled scene featuring Cara Manuele as the production’s rabblerousing villainess, Lady Windowmirror, and dancers Dana Benedict and Themba Alleyne as townspeople.
A weary Oken stands at a nearby props table laying out coils of thick ropes that are ominously tied into hangman’s nooses. The table is already heaped with a half-dozen effective-looking truncheons and heavy, rusticated rakes cut from rough hardwood branches. The only thing missing is a sign warning viewers to not try this at home. The clubs will be used exactly as suggested by the title of the song “The Beating of Señor Hammerheart”; the nooses and rakes will likewise be wielded in an elaborate musical number staged around the tunes “Skimmington's Last Ride” and “Reflecting Pane”.
“It’s the crazy-busy time,” the producer concurs. He’s just come from the theatrical equipment supplier PRG after spending a full 24 hours negotiating the insurance rider for the thousands of dollars worth of lighting instruments that the show will be wiring into to the Lillian Theater’s grid on Thursday in order to accommodate the technically complex production.
The still center of the controlled frenzy is sprawled on the couches in the adjoining lounge. Tattooed and bearded and dressed in black band tee shirts, the show’s musician-composers — singer Jess Gabriell Cron, keyboardist Ian Malcolm, guitarist Andy Kovari and drummer Mike Caffell — calmly kill time as they wait to begin their part of the rehearsal.
The 34-year-old Cron, who is perhaps most responsible for dreaming up the idea of creating a live show around one of the band’s albums, is clearly excited by the energy and momentum of the project. The live benefit concert of Charivari in Voyeurville that the band played the previous weekend at the Mint, and at which Lopez and Luna’s Post Mortem dancers performed some neo-burlesque, drew a capacity crowd and was deemed a success by reaping both cash for the Fringe production and video for its promotion.
“This has been the most amazing process,” he enthuses. “The cast is incredible. The director is incredible. Our producer is incredible. Everything is really coming together. It’s been one of those things, like, ‘Man, why didn’t I do this sooner?’”
It isn’t immediately clear whether by “sooner” Cron means write and perform a fringe rock musical or abandon a comfortable existence as an art director for an international ad agency by leaping into the bohemian abyss as frontman for the nearly impossible-to-categorize rock hybrid “acoustic grindcore death metal” group House of Rabbits.
“That was probably the first and only time in my life that I could consider myself someone who was really rich,” he laughs about the career on which he turned his back. “I actually had money then. But I had to forsake that all because it really wasn’t creatively where I wanted to be.”
A mere four years ago, the Binghamton, N.Y. native found himself in Los Angeles, increasingly dissatisfied by designing ads for clients like Nike even as he was inexplicably drawn to making music. He had been a lifelong visual artist and had barely touched an instrument when a friend lent him an acoustic guitar and a light went off. By 2008, the noises Cron had been scratching out alone on his home recording studio had resulted in 25 tracks that he released as the first record for his band Feast of Fetus — a name that reflected his childhood love for Nine Inch Nails and the dark and heavily distorted electric guitar that characterized Fetus’ early sound.
“The joy of creation in the visual art world was kind of crushed by art school,” he says. “And that’s what I love so much about music, why I really believe that music found me, because it’s the one thing now that I can have in my mind — I’ll have a picture that will start in a certain way — and when I start to put it into music, it will always turn out better than I planned. Better than what was in my mind.”
But after three albums and the addition of Kovari on lead guitar, the band had drifted away from the heavy dissonance of Fetus’ metal sound and the album writing evolved into something more conceptually narrative and theatrical. So they dropped the Feast of Fetus name for House of Rabbits and began searching for ways to perform their musical narratives as a live stage show or maybe as a neo-German Expressionist film. That’s when Cron happened to mention Charivari in Voyeurville to Oken on a fateful February night, and the producer promptly threw in his hat.
The June 8 premiere will mark the first foray into live theater by any of the band members, but Cron is undaunted.
“I just feel that the timing is right when it’s right, and things like this reveal themselves when they do, or when you’re ready,” he says mystically. “And I think right now is when we’re absolutely ready to put on something like this.”
House of Rabbits — Charivari in Voyeurville begins previews on June 8.
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