Noah J Nelson on Monday, Jun. 24th
The fourth annual Hollywood Fringe Festival heads into its final days this week, providing one last chance to pan for theatrical gold along the shores of Santa Monica Boulevard.
That's exactly what I did this weekend, and my luck held out more often than not with the shows I've seen. Before I dig down into that, I need to address something that's come up a few times over the past couple of years: mixing social media with theater.
There's been some experimentation in the theater world with what are colloquially known as "tweet seats". Instead of fighting the impulse that so many people have to fidget with social media apps, the idea is to embrace those tools as part of the experience.
That's what the The Mechanical Heart Theatre Co. is attempting with their show #Hashtag and I wish I could say it works. I wish I could say that it converted me from a "tweet seat" naysayer into a social media in the theater enthusiast.
All it really did was give me a chance to check my email during the show.
I try not to be harsh and unnecessarily snarky about Fringe shows, or festival works of any kind. There is an unspoken social contract at arts festivals, especially non-curated festivals like the Hollywood Fringe. Not unlike a collegiate environment the proper way to judge festival work is to take a piece on its own terms–something I'd encourage anyone to do with any work of art–and factor in the experience of the creators involved. That's a factor that can vary wildly at the Fringe.
The Mechanical Heart Theatre Co. is clearly a young outfit, and #Hashtag an experiment driven by a central idea and improvisations. According to director Jeffery Wienckowski, the show started out six weeks before production as "a title and a vague idea".
This is the kind of work that can be rough enough going without the added temptation of Twitter. To be fair, there were moments that cleverly theatricalized the kind of present shock inducing trauma that our ever-buzzing, always demanding digital tethers create. Yet by inviting the audience to engage with the social media that is sitting in our pockets, #Hashtag puts itself in competition with the production.
After firing off a tweet related to the show I received a response from a member of the Fringe community. What she had to say was more interesting to me than the action on stage. So I checked out. It wasn't fair to the show, but honestly, I felt like "they started it".
The theme of the show–the social disconnect that our devices cause–is reinforced by that experience, but I reject that as validation. Instead of a push-pull tension between the temporal reality of the show and the atemporal nature of digital communication the use of social media here feels like shorthand.
There are rich veins of irony to be mined in an experiment like this. Alternatively a social media experience could be crafted for a show that might reveal greater truths than what is being said onstage. A company could recreate the experience of being on the "back channel" of a public event, one of the great joys of social media.
In the end #Hashtag feels much like it's namesake: an indication that a conversation is taking place, but not the conversation itself. The social media and theater debate will continue.
(no static at all)
At the rate I'm going with this year's Fringe I'm going to have to reassess my "I don't like one person shows" rule.
(no static at all) is a solo piece written and performed by the effortlessly charming Alex Knox. The stage is minimally set with a table, chair, and a record player. Knox sets the mood by spinning records through the show, timing his stories perfectly to the soundtrack.
Knox is an engaging, dynamic, and heartfelt storyteller. An actor who doesn't need a character to hide behind to own the stage. Here's how good he is: a half-dozen late comers trudged right through about ten minutes into the piece. Knox quipped "don't mind me, just telling some stories" while smiling, without missing a beat. God, do I hate him. (See the show and that last will take on a different meaning.)
Director Becca Wolff–who, like Knox, is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama–creates a perfect rhythm with Knox for the staging of the piece. I could go on at length about how the show uses space and physical levels with the barest of set pieces, but this is a Fringe overview and not American Theatre magazine. If you really care come talk to me about it.
Cleaner Than Blood
Productions like Thirty9One's Cleaner Than Blood are pretty much why Fringe festivals exist. This new play by the Yale Drama Series winning playwright Jen Silverman is a diamond in the rough, one that with pressure, time and a skilled hand could well be something beautiful.
Director Alexander Thomas Scott's staging carries the show past a clunky opening scene which sacrifices some tone and internal logic to set up plot moves two stops down the line. The set-up may clunk, but the revelations pay off.
For "serious" plays–because let's admit that there's plenty of fun larks in the mix–this is something of a Fringe miracle. There's work that needs to be done before Cleaner Than Blood is ready for primetime, but this production is miles above a workshop production.
I walked into this show familiar with Scott only as a Fringe volunteer in years past and Silverman not at all. I stepped out knowing that I'll be watching both careers for years to come.
The Devil and Billy Markham
Shel Silverstein is known to most as a poet for children, but there's noting for kids in this production. The stage adaptation of his blues epic about a hustler is a popular choice with daring solo performers, but to make it something truly special might just take a deal with old you-know-who.
If that's so you might want to check Aaron Lyons for any telltale signs that he's gone and sold his soul, because the Zenith Ensemble production that takes over the lounge of the Three Clubs bar is so good it must be unholy.
Lyons plays the narrator of the tale, reciting Silverstein's poem while morphing through the speaking roles like a natural born shapeshifter. In the span of a line and the blink of an eye Lyons slips from a bumpkin Markham to a devil who must be second cousins with every corrupt preacher in the South to a God who sounds a bit like Johnny Cash. If the process wouldn't kill the man I could watch him do this show for hours.
Lyons and director Amanda McRaven have staged the show in the perfect setting: the back room of the de facto Fringe bar. A three piece band is already up an playing as the audience walks in, a portrait of Billy Dee Williams shilling Colt 45 hanging behind the bar where the hypnotic Ruth Fox (Billy's Wife/The Women) dances, losing herself in the music. The sense that something is about to go down fills the room the way cigarette smoke once did back before the ban.
The greatest tragedy about The Devil and Billy Markham is that there is just one more planned performance: Wedensday the 26th. Perhaps if we all clap our hands in unison Lyons and company will hear us and find a way to keep this show going. It's a theatrical treat more people deserve to see.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival continues through June 30th.
Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)