The Hollywood Fringe Festival officially begins today, and L.A. Weekly has teamed with the theater website Stage Raw to review as many shows as possible.
Here are our reviews of some of the shows performed during the Fringe's preview period last week. The reviews marked "GO" are shows we particularly recommend.
Through June 28
America's corrosive love affair with deadly firearms is the theme of playwright Jeremy Kehoe's uneven collection of four one acts. Much like a game of Russian Roulette, though, only one of the four theatrical bullets possesses the firepower necessary to blow our minds.
In "Florida," Andrew Preston offers a genuinely harrowing turn as a vicious thug, serving a life sentence for murdering a woman, who spitefully tricks a handicapped young man into serving a life sentence of his own. Preston's matter of fact coldness as he portrays a sociopathic creep whom Nietzche would have taken out for coffee is wonderfully powerful. Elsewhere, "Michigan" centers on a Priest (Holger Moncada, Jr., nicely brooding) desperately trying to negotiate the surrender of unhinged gunman Lewis (Drew McAuliffe), with tragic results.
Although this piece boasts some passionate acting, the situation is never entirely believable and the debate the characters engage in is forced and circular. Director Jeffrey Wylie's stiff and workmanlike direction does little to connect the other, slighter stories to any underlying emotion, and the pieces all too often descend into pedantic dogma. - Paul Birchall
Fierce Backbone at the Lounge Theatre,6201 Santa Monica Blvd.,hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1834?tab=tickets
Angels and Whiskey
Through June 27
In this dense and interesting one act by Joshua Thomas, someone named John (Bruce Cervi) finds himself in a bar, with the maddening sensation of downing the very same drink over and over again. In walks a well-spoken stranger (Thomas) - the Devil, as it turns out - who has come to enlighten John on his peculiar status as a spirit lodged in his own personal corner of heaven. Trouble is, John feels he's in hell.
With Lucifer doing most of the talking, they engage in a discourse about faith and the lack of it, actions and their consequences, the world as we know it and the hereafter. After a few drinks, even Lucifer himself expresses doubts and resentments.
Thomas, who also directs, is a charismatic presence as the erudite Dark Angel, a companionable dude who'd be fun to hang with were it not for his ulterior motives. Cervi and Daniel J. Parker as a cryptic bartender do fine, but they are upstaged. It's evident their performances and the production as a whole would benefit from a third eye. - Deborah Klugman
The Actors Company, 950 N. Formosa Ave., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1632
Anita Bryan's Playboy Interview
Through June 28
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since former Miss Oklahoma and evangelical anti-gay gadfly Anita Bryant waged her successful 1977 campaign to repeal Dade County, Florida's pioneering ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. But as the ongoing national battles over marriage equality and this week's embrace of gay conversion therapy by Texas Republicans attest, the struggle for LGBT rights in this country is hardly over.
Which is perhaps the best endorsement for the continued relevance of John Copeland and Robert Whirry's canny political caricature of Bryant's outrageous bigotry in a script mostly culled from the June 1978 Playboy interview conducted by Ken Kelley (played here by Stephen Simon).
The leading edge of the satire is contained in Copeland's restrained drag impersonation of Bryant - replete with Okie accent and red bouffant wig - in which the actor allows the former Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson to damn herself with her own words.
What follows is a camp compendium of Bryant's more ludicrous pronouncements, such as her extended and befuddled exegesis on how "homosexuals eat the male sperm" that is the biblical "life essence" and "forbidden fruit" and is therefore banned by the Bible.
Despite the pinpoint hilarity of Copeland's delivery and Paul Stein's able and brisk direction, the 80-minute show could easily lose a good 20 minutes. By a not-so-strange coincidence, that is just about the running time added by the show's inclusion of the probably unnecessary historical context and arch tone of righteous moral indignation provided by Brett Paesel as the show's superfluous narrator and as the June 1978 issue's centerfold Gail Stanton. - Bill Raden
Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1695
GO Bike Odyssey L.A.
Through June 14
"This is your city. Welcome home."
Sometimes traversing the large urban sprawl that is Los Angeles can feel like an odyssey in and of itself - that is why Bike Odyssey L.A., which takes Homer's Odyssey and fuses it with Los Angeles, works so well.
(Note that the Fringe version of the show is a walking tour, but its upcoming performance on June 21 and its eventual incarnations, including one planned for CicLAvia, will involve bikes.)
We are greeted by a collection of characters who take us on our journey, including Odysseus (Jesse Sirkus-Brown), triumphant in the Trojan War and ready to return home. After a sacrifice of kale to the gods, we are given our sailor names and begin our long trip through Hollywood. We literally stop traffic to cross the raging seas (aka Santa Monica Boulevard), get caught in a storm, write poetry and drink wine, battle the Cyclops (Vanessa Conlon) built out of a car and road cone, meet Circe (Bree Cardenas), a Hollywood starlet who turns some of the sailors into pigs, and tie Odysseus to a bike so he can sail past the Sirens. After entering the gates of hell by sharing a personal obstacle, we traverse into the land of the dead (where a random woman walking down the street joined us for a bit), and share stories of L.A. with the Venice Beach lotus-eaters before finally returning home (to the theater) where Odysseus is reunited with his wife Penelope (Linda Ravenswood).
The entire journey is an epic poem to and about Los Angeles. From the show's sense of history, it's clear that director Brian Sonia-Wallace (who also conceived the show) and his ensemble love this city. They blend gang wars, gentrification, hipsters, USC, Hollywood, the 1992 riots, immigration and more into the Greek tale, making it a truly unique story of L.A. in all of its complicated facets.
The bold ambition of this project is commendable; however, there is still a lot of developing, refining and fine-tuning that needs to be done. At times the audience participation feels clunky and forced, which takes you out of the experience. It would be nice to have the participation come more organically from the story - which also needs more fleshing out. Since it is such a condensed adaptation, we never really get the expansive and exhaustive arch of Odysseus's journey home.
Overall, the ensemble is engaging, energetic and enchanting. As we move from place to place on our journey, they create a tribal soundscape, interweaving voices - something that could be developed with more specificity to the story.
There's also some inventive and playful staging. The ensemble want to make sure that we all feel safe and comfortable on this journey together, thus the use of humor in the beginning (and throughout) works well in getting the audience primed to partake of the wine (both metaphorically and literally).
Since this piece was developed with cycling as part of the experience, I will definitely try the troupe's cycling shows in the future and look forward to seeing how the project continues to develop. - Ashley Steed
Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., Sat., June 14, 1 p.m., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1870. Also performed via bike ride on Sat., June 21, 6 p.m., for free, meeting at Metro Orange Line Sepulveda Station (15430-15432 W. Erwin St., Van Nuys). Call (323) 509-4905 for info.
GO The Conduct of Life
Through June 28
In an unidentified country, ambitious military officer Orlando (Robert Homer Mollohan) wants to "achieve maximum power." His sensitive wife Leticia (Karina Wolfe) wants to "be a woman who speaks in a group and have everybody listen." But she won't stand up to him, even once she becomes aware of Nena (Emily Yetter), the young girl that Orlando keeps and rapes in the basement.
Orlando's colleague Alejo (Jeremy Mascia) impotently wonders if "anybody can change anything." He, too, fails to speak up against the torture he and Orlando perpetrate against the government's enemies. It is finally Orlando and Leticia's maid Olimpia (Belinda Gosbee) who even attempts to stand up to Orlando and protect Nena. Yet even she only has limited success in doing either.
Maria Irene Fornes' Obie award-winning 1985 play about cruelty and power remains as resonant today as when it was written. Despite the tiny space and less-than-ideal use of work lights, director Sabina Ptasznik stages the piece with a ferocity and nuance that communicates both the horror of violence and our tacit acceptance of it. Mollohan radiates Orlando's rage (even if not his pain), Wolfe skillfully balances Leticia's cool exterior and her petrifying insecurity, and Yetter's portrayal of Nena's innocence is heartbreaking. - Mayank Keshaviah
The Vagrancy at Theater Asylum (Asylum Lab), 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1593
GO Death by Powerpoint
Through June 29
There are no actual deaths in this sly and clever satire by playwright-director James F. Robinson, but one character experiences near-death.
Four motivational speakers are finalists in the National Global Influencers contest. Lucy (Scarlet Bermingham) begins by telling us they're here to destroy all our most cherished beliefs. She tells us the secret of success is to ignore depressing facts and to practice self-delusion: Just tell yourself, "You are freakin' Awesome." Mark (Eric Pierce) assures us that the way to achieve the Inevitability of Cosmic Bliss is to concentrate on the pushed-in face of an endearing pug-dog. Joan (Emilly Thomas) is so distracted by her chocolate addiction that she loses track of her message, crying out, "My free will was roofied and raped by a Reeces Peanut Butter Cup."
Matthew insists that we are less concerned with the crimes of Stalin and Hitler than with getting laid, and direct action is futile, since all real change occurs sideways. He then goes on to perform a bit of grand-standing, to impress the contest judges, that nearly does him in.
The script is scatter-shot but funny, and the actors are sharp and stylish. - Neal Weaver
ZapPictures at Actors Company, 916 N. Formosa Ave., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1624
Through June 27
Solo performer Kristopher Lee Bicknell focuses on the work of lesser-known playwrights throughout the centuries, performing material which for one reason or another has become obscure. This conceit is part of a sly game involving co-writers directors Sean Dillon and Curtis Krick.
As a commentary of forgery and plagiarism, the piece is a walloping success. The performance itself is a bit less impressive, showcasing a developing talent rather than a mature one. When, at one point, Bicknell the performer seems to be having a breakdown, the effect is unconvincing, then annoying (enough with the artistic angst!), then confusing. Ultimately, the show unwinds like a complex exercise in an acting class, albeit a more advanced one. - Deborah Klugman
Vespertine Productions at Elephant Studio/Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1768
GO The Fantasticks
Through June 29
Those who have fond memories of this 1959 musical will likely find much to enjoy in Good People Theater Company's production. Audiences coming to it fresh (such as myself) might miss the rush of nostalgia but should still be pleasantly entertained.
The Fantasticks is a remake of Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques, about next-door neighbors Matt (Matt Franta) and Luisa (Audrey Curd), whose fathers conspire to get them to fall in love, and how the world conspires to pull them apart.
Curd captures Luisa's sense of romantic mania perfectly, and she delivers a charming version of the song "Much More." Franta is a bit bland as Matt, but he and Curd offer a nice duet in "Soon It's Gonna Rain." Matt Stevens and Michael P. Wallot are both amusing in their comedic roles, and Joey D'Auria is very funny as the forgetful old actor Henry. Christopher Karbo, unfortunately, doesn't quite bring the necessary brio to the narrator El Gallo, although his singing voice is strong.
Director Janet Miller does a lot with a little. Her staging adds a lively energy to numbers such as "Never Say No." The decision to bring in harpist Jillian Risigari-Gai reaps musical dividends, adding to the story's magical feeling. - Terry Morgan
Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1513
Four Tree Plays
Through June 29
The quartet of short plays benefits from a versatile ensemble and some amusing writing but suffers from a somewhat random raison d'être.
Nicolas Hoover's "Seeking Still" is the slightest of the lot, with four different types of trees using an Internet dating service. Leilani Marie Smith brings charm and vivacity as a Valley Girl-esque apple tree. "Tree Counsel" by Stina Pederson is the most dramatic offering, concerning the meeting of lonely, religious Ralph (Whit Spurgeon) and archeologist Candace (Smith) at a forest dig. Spurgeon is quietly unnerving as Ralph, creating doubts as to the character's motives, but the story ultimately doesn't add up to much after considerable buildup.
Brendan Weinhold and Spencer Seibert's "Sophistree" is the most successful of the pieces, wherein a suicidal tree (Dawn Alden) tells nature activist Keith (Weinhold) that she wants to be cut down. Alden has a strong comedic presence as the blunt tree, and the play is funny until an overwrought conclusion. Jennie Fahn's "Does it Make a Sound?" rounds out the production, a cute sketch about a squirrel's love for a tree, and Weinhold scores as a seductive feline. - Terry Morgan
Ray Burley Productions at Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1508
GO Friends Like These
Through June 28
Gregory Crafts' drama Friends Like These tips its hand during its prologue. In the pitch-dark theater, we hear a montage of news coverage and eye-witness accounts of a shooting rampage at a high school. The lights then come up on a trio of teens wielding foam swords, garbed in medieval attire, spouting archaic English. It's confusing for a moment until we realize these three are merrily participating in a "Live Action Role Playing" game. Nerdy Garrett (Scott Sharma), Emo girl Dis (Sammi Lappin) and sometime jock Brian (Sean Casey Flanagan) are geeky gamers who hang out together, copping a fair amount of bullying and daily abuse from the cooler kids at their school. Their only escape is acting out these guided fantasy war games in a realm called Haven.
Crafts does a good job of capturing the nightmare of daily abuse - particularly the vile homophobic slurs that assault Garrett - and offers sympathetic insight into those unpopular teens who are pushed to a murderous breaking point. Crafts also seems to hew too closely to stereotypes - the jock, the freak, the cheerleader - even as he attempts to break them down. Hence, we have a conceited cheerleader Nicole (Parissa Koo) who is trying to break out of her assigned category - "slut" or "airhead" - by attempting to date one of the nice guys who happens to be a geek. Her object of affection, Garrett, is hostile at first, but soon warms to the bubbly, motor-mouth girl. But Nicole's ex-boyfriend Jesse (Lee Pollero), is the most dangerous bully on campus and soon he's ramping up his attacks on Garrett.
A highlight of Wendy Gough Soroka's direction is the simple but effective staging of a battle sequence that beautifully captures the chaos of pretend warfare. The music supervision is also exemplary, with the Beastie Boys' up-tempo pop hit "Sabotage" selected for this scene. Swift scene changes are underscored by apt snippets of songs such as the Offspring's rock anthem "Come Out and Play (Keep 'em Separated)" - emphasizing the school's pecking order.
Friends Like These begins by provoking belly laughs but soon moves into heavy melodrama fraught with devious machinations and speechifying. Adolescence is a high-drama era and, regrettably, not everyone gets out alive. - Pauline Adamek
Theatre Unleashed at Elephant Studio/Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1887
Through June 28
This is a striking revival of Lee Blessing's 1984 drama about a family caught in the swirls of crisis and change in a small Iowa town. At the heart of the play is Evelyn Briggs (Shelley Phillips), the mother of three daughters, who is emotionally unstable, manipulative and grasping. Her daughters all suffer in various degrees from her warped, near fetishistic need to dominate their lives.
The fuse is lit when the eldest, Kess (Kat Muldoon), a lesbian and college professor, returns home after four years to find her youngest sister Jo (Jenny Simpson) pregnant and wearing a neck brace, the result of an attack by her mother. Middle sister Sherry (Lauren Benge), a wild-child and loose panty who is into "meaningless relationships," and is an aspiring sculptor, is never short of hurtful words or droll mockery. Evelyn is a master at tossing the apple of discord among her children, always with the intention of controlling them and engaging in her destructive ritual of attraction and repulsion.
This is pegged as a coming-of-age story, but it really is about breaking free of bonds, even at the expense of those we love. These characters are complex, beckoning and masterfully sketched by Blessing, and the performances are outstanding under Vernée Watson's exacting direction. - Lovell Estell III
V. Watson Productions at The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1588
Into the Fog
Through June 27
This enigmatic, abstract movement piece, directed by Sam Szabo and Samantha Shay, was, we're told, inspired by the Soviet animated short Hedgehog in the Fog, but for those who don't know the film, that's hardly enlightening. We can only judge it by what happens on the stage: seven barefoot, unidentified actors (two males and five females) appear from the semi-darkness wearing coats. To a dense musical accompaniment, they move downstage in slow motion, shed their coats and drop them off the stage. They seem to have ambiguous feelings about books, first seeming to cherish them. Then it seems the books are moaning and crying out in pain. Later one of the women becomes destructive, ripping out pages from a book, and flinging them aside till the stage is engulfed by a paper storm.
There are many striking images, as the performers toss powder in the air, brandish illuminated branches and are enveloped by an enormous parachute as one of the men attempts to restrain the destroying woman. There is much anger, with stamping feet and beating on the walls, as the intense and dedicated cast performs its actions.
The friendly and highly vociferous audience thundered its approval. - Neal Weaver
Source Materials in Association with Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1880
GO The Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms
Through June 28
Chief among the many reasons to see ARTEL's remount of their 2010 music hall of Futurist-Absurdist sketches by the Soviet avant-gardist Daniil Kharms is the matchless opportunity for the polished and entertaining introduction it provides to its author.
Director and adaptor Olya Petrakova, co-adaptor/performer Bryan Brown and a 12-member ensemble (with musical accompaniment by Jef Bek & Ensemble) tackle around 20 of Kharms's meta-fictional writings - notebook fragments, short-short "stories" and abbreviated playlets - whose ribald and parodic riffs on random violence, death and non-sequitur wordplay might best be described as a vaudeville blend of Beckett, Abbott and Costello, and the Three Stooges by way of Kafka.
At the heart of the evening - and Kharms' surreal oeuvre - is the mordant Russian sense of humor in extremis. Kharms and his OBIERU writers collective date from the period of Stalin's consolidation of power when ordinary Soviet life began to take on a harrowingly absurdist quality. Kharms himself died in a manner worthy of one of his own fictions by starving to death in an insane asylum during the siege of Leningrad.
That flavor of black, fatalistic burlesque gets summed up in bits during which a Harpo Marx-like clown is suddenly beaten to death with an oversized cucumber, a piece in which a pair of lovers are suddenly interrupted and carried off by Cheka agents, a portrait gallery scene wherein the relative merits of Pushkin and Gogol are discussed by a literary critic and that quickly devolves into a wrestling match between the two authors, and matching sketches featuring first a group of women and then men describing the erotic olfactory qualities of female genitalia ("Should one be ashamed of ones own body?" a later piece asks).
And if no English translation can adequately convey the homonymous nuances or punning interplay embedded in Kharms's Russian-language poetics, The Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms' precision ensemble and Petrakova's well-oiled, if somewhat overlong, 90-minute production deliver a worthy approximation of what may be the next best thing. - Bill Raden
Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; through June 28. hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1885?tab=tickets
The Landstuhl Chronicles
Through June 28
Named for the largest United States military hospital on foreign soil and the main treatment destination for soldiers wounded in Iraq, this play written, directed, and produced by Benny Lumpkins, interweaves tales from veterans with background on the ill-fated invasion.
Unfortunately, the episodic structure is a hot mess that requires far more development before it will be ready for a mainstage production. The characters receive little individuation or arcs, apart from a brief rap session at a nightclub in which each soldier awkwardly declaims his or her story while standing before the group. The muddled timeline casts a woman (Caroline Sweet) who does not appear to be Hillary Clinton serving as president, or possibly press secretary, issuing politically improbable statements in the wake of Bush's Mission Accomplished speech. A diverting but thematically pointless scene involves a soldier (James Jenkins) picking up a lesbian German (Sarah Brooks).
The cast flounders without adequate direction, retreading generic narratives without shaping or elucidating the war's complex historical reality. - Jenny Lower
BLJ Productions at Elephant Studio/Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1747
The Last Remnants of Cops, Robbers and Hollywood Cowboys
Through June 29
There are about a gazillion stories to tell about Los Angeles, and while playwright Tom Cavanaugh's collection of monologues aren't the most compelling or exciting tales to tell, they certainly reflect the spirit of the Big Orange. Kernels of awareness familiar to most Angelenos may be found within the pieces, even if many vignettes often feel bogged down by stereotypes and inertly rendered situations.
Best of the set is Tadamori Yagi's delightful turn as a young Silver Laker who frets over the fact that no one in self-absorbed Hell-A checks in on him after a calamity occurs in his apartment building. Christopher D. Narrie offers a touching turn as a young Downtowner who embarks on an ultimately (and inevitably tragic) love affair with a homeless Skid Row waif. Laura Raynor, as a coffeehouse patron bumping into an old man who turns out to be a legendary Hollywood stunt man from cinema's Golden Age, certainly conveys a bona fide Los Angeles sensibility.
Otherwise, the writing suffers from being more banal than the situations require - it doesn't help that each monologue's protagonist narrates his story, instead of dramatically living it, creating a flat, static mood that's more Dead Zone than L.A. - Paul Birchall
Paris Avenue Productions at The Complex, 6706 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1605
Through June 26
Beginning with a Candid Camera-style video in which people on the street as well as cast members in character are asked to try and define love, writer-director Lee Turnbull's play introduces us to married couple Lee (Turnbull) and Emily (Molly Beucher) as they confront the reality that it is nearly impossible for them to naturally produce a baby together, and the emotional fallout this revelation brings to their relationship.
Though the performances feel genuine and believable, the play as a whole suffers from questionable writing choices: After a drawn out argument between Emily and Lee, where tension rises then falls erratically multiple times, the rest of the play is almost entirely devoted to Emily's progression and inner-conflict over her choices. The play's short running time, numerous moments of emotional uncertainty, soul searching, and then surprisingly clear self-analysis on Emily's part all makes the revelations - and the moral that love is complicated - feel rushed and contrived, though this is definitely a work-in-progress with potential. - Reza Vojdani
The Complex, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1754
Through June 28
A TV writer/producer for most of his lengthy career, David Castro has now tried his hand at playwriting, and the resulting one-person play, Man's Dominion, is not as emotionally gripping as one might expect from the subject matter.
Castro was seized by the tragic turn-of-the-century tale of a circus elephant's lynching. In a small town Tennessee town in 1916, an Indian elephant named Mary lashed out at an inexperienced and brutal trainer, stamping on his head. For this murderous act, the beast was hanged.
The playwright adopts the typical, no-frills approach of having a sole actor inhabit a virtually bare stage and adopt numerous characters. By doffing a hat, buttoning his collar or affixing a red nose, Tim Powell portrays nine distinct characters from clown to clergyman, each also delineated by a broad accent - an Irishman's lilt, the drawl of a Southerner, and the cadence of a black man. Castro also has Powell adopt the persona of the slain man - for whom the elephant was killed - in an interesting, ghostly choice.
For his social commentary, Castro's language is equal parts vivid and ploddingly explanatory, tapping into 1916 attitudes that ranged from remorse to outrage. Some sequences are insightful, though, such as a short speech that reveals the harsh realities of a physically taxing career in the circus. Additionally, this curiosity-piece of a play holds a neat little surprise in the stalls for its audiences. - Pauline Adamek
Pachyderm Productions at Elephant Studio/Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1834?tab=tickets
The Mermaid Who Learned to Fly
Through June 28
Kyla Garcia's solo show starts out as a fairy tale, with Garcia initially assuming the persona of an enchanting pixie, cum lilting Irish brogue. It would have been a much better show had she packaged an equal amount of whimsy into the narrative that follows.
After a time, she spins off an onerous yarn about a child named Victoria, an aspiring writer, and then tracks her progression through school, scraps with teachers, first love, and so on. Garcia assumes multiple characters throughout, but the transitions are often jagged and confusing. The most baffling, ponderous segment of the show - and the most painfully protracted - concerns Victoria's trials and trauma over a lesbian love affair. Garcia is an energetic and charismatic performer, but this uninspiring material doesn't resonate at all. Jessica Lynn Johnson directs. - Lovell Estell III
Elephant Studio/Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1887
Through June 29
In this world premiere written by John Tyler McClain and directed by Carly D. Weckstein, earth "Up Top" is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the casualty of an unspecified disaster that has left bottles of "Clean" scarce. Below ground, Alice (the marvelous Joanna Bateman), wearing a tattered blue dress, tends her plants and practices the waltz, awaiting the return of Cliff (Bruce A. Lemon, Jr.), with whom she barters sexual favors in exchange for Clean. Their tenuous existence is upended by the capture of Preacher (Bethany Esfandiari), who turns Alice's head with tales of Odessa, a survivors' enclave, sparking a power struggle with Cliff.
Alana Cheuvront's costumes infuse a gritty realism with just the right touch of whimsy, while the lighting - work lights-on-wheels operated by the actors and able to swing around as required - create the illusion of intimacy interrupted by glaring harshness.
Bateman's performance dances on a line between delicacy of feeling and barminess, strengthening the allusions to Alice in Wonderland (originally titled Alice's Adventures Under Ground). Bateman isn't matched by her costars, however; Esfandiari seems as though she hasn't quite committed to the unscrupulous rambler's brutish philosophy. But despite threatening to be unremittingly dark, under Weckstein's direction the script evokes surprising humor and even a glimmer of redemption. - Jenny Lower
The Illyrian Players Theatre Company at Theatre Asylum Lab, 6230 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1686
Thistle & Weeds
Through June 28
The title of this play may seem familiar because it's shared by a Mumford & Sons song. As both also share a somber mood, one wonders if playwright Stephen C. John may have found the song inspirational in crafting this story of a man who refuses to capitulate during the London Blitz. That man, Percy (Michael Renney), will not go down to the bomb shelter and leave the flat he inhabits (nicely appointed in period furniture by Meghan McCarthy), despite his friend Syd (Tyler Campbell) begging him to do so.
"Civility is all we can hold onto," Percy tells Syd, even as they are interrupted by air raid sirens and bombs exploding outside, courtesy of a Kris Kataoka's resonant sound design and a clever technique employed by live cellist Michelle Packman. (Packman also provides a cinematic-style scoring to the piece.) Once Syd leaves, Percy discovers a young girl (Alexis Slear) hiding in the flat, and they share moments that reveal why Percy will not leave a flat that doesn't even belong to him.
Jesse Runde's direction is creative and makes the most of the material. However, a lengthier exploration of the story might help it realize its full dramatic potential. - Mayank Keshaviah
Alchemy Theatre Company at the Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1804
The Trial of Dali
Through June 28
Playwright Andrew Jacob aims to give us a look into the true nature of the famous surrealist artist Salvador Dali (Patrick Ian Moore), who is, according to the program note, inspired by his "true internal properties, entangles with his multiple personas, [and] multiple problems." Billed as a surrealist farce, the show depicts fictional events surrounding Dali's return to Spain in 1948, where Dali stands accused of artistic crimes and faces a subsequent trial.
The borderline absurd and arguably surreal trial plays host to a number of courtroom tropes - a passionate prosecutor (Cassondra Vincent), an eclectic judge (John Moschitta, Jr.) and a bumbling guard (Larry Blackman) as well as numerous well-known celebrities of the time such as Andy Warhol (Rigg Kennedy) and Pablo Picasso (Emilio Borelli). In the end however, the progression of events feels like nothing more than a conduit for jokes, many of which fall flat, based on alleged acts that characterized Dali's life.
While the combining of surrealism with theatrical farce is worth exploring, The Trial of Dali ends up sacrificing compelling or even coherent narrative for little more reward than an occasional chuckle, and the desire to fact-check the play in order to learn more about Salvador Dali's life. Trace Oakley directs. - Reza Vojdani
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1812?tab=tickets
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Editor's note: These reviews are offered via a partnership between L.A. Weekly and Stage Raw. To maximize coverage of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the two publications are sharing reviews and funding responsibilities. Stage Raw is an Emerge Project of the Pasadena Arts Council, with other funding coming from a combination of advertising and individual donors. For Stage Raw's reviews visit stageraw.com.
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