Noah J Nelson on Friday, Jun. 12th
The Hollywood Fringe Festival has begun.
For the past five years every June in Hollywood—the actual neighborhood of Hollywood, not the metaphorical condition called Hollywood—has meant one thing: Fringe. The Hollywood Fringe Festival, to be precise, which already lays claim to be ing the largest Fringe theatre festival west of the Mississippi.
This past weekend saw the beginning of the previews for Fringe, and I took in a couple of shows. As always I’m on the lookout for more experimental theatre, the kind of work that transcends traditional formats and speaks to the mash-up era that we live in. Since that kind of work is hard to advertise without either sound like a madman or a hype machine it is difficult to suss out the wondrously strange from those who need masks to fit in with the real freaks.
Fringe Festivals are at their best when they work as incubators of fresh talent and ideas, and the Hollywood Fringe has become a vital part of the Southland’s artistic ecosystem in a short time. The success of the festival is proof that there is a thirst in LA for broad spectrum of live performance.
My own hunger, however, grows more particular every year.
At last year’s Fringe I targeted experimental and movement based pieces, and finding myself lured towards reinterpretations of classics. Given that there are 73 solo shows in this year’s Fringe catalog that means there’s alost a third of the festival that I’m not tuning into.
There isn’t anything particularly wrong with solo shows, I’ve enjoyed a few in my day, but the trick of turning an individual’s own story into a universal experience is a hard one to master. One in a rare while a solo show connects that way, and when they do they are transcendent. It’s long odds, though.
Which leaves me more and more focused on the Dance and Physical Theatre category as the avenue for my explorations. This year’s crop is tiny: just nine pieces there. There’s still movement and experimental pieces lurking within the Ensemble Theatre section—with 81 productions in that category it will take some keen word of mouth skills to hunt down the sublime.
And, yes, I know that I just complained about one category having too little and another category having too much. Paradox. Get used to it.
Here’s what I can tell you so far: I’ve managed to see two shows this past weekend and am eagerly anticipating two more at the moment.
8:03 is an ensemble piece rooted in movement and clowning that tells a whimsical tale of three workers in a cookie factory undergoing an existential crisis. Strangely enough it’s almost a great show for kids… as it is it’s a pretty good show for kids. And you get a cookie at the end. The problem is that the show is about 15 minutes too long. While there’s some brilliant use of repetition to build a physical language for the piece the well is drawn from a little too long.
What’s great about Fringe festivals is that they are basically shake-down cruises for productions. At least the one’s that are going to have lives outside the festival. With some thoughtful editing 8:03 could easily be one of those pieces.
The same can be said of Rogue Artists Ensemble’s Shakespeare(ish).
This was my first exposure to the Rogue’s brand of “hypertheatre”— a mixture of puppetry, clowning, and sketch work that has a manic, ribald energy to it. In the preview I caught the performers blasted through 70 minutes worth of Shakespeare-derived skits that had more hits than misses. The inventive costume, mask, and puppet work really makes the case for this as a must-see production.
What’s unfortunate is that the connective tissue between the skits is clunky, to say the least. I got the sense that about half the cast was committed to the meta-textuality of their performance personas, while the other half wasn’t entirely sure if they should buy into the weird reality that was mostly established. A slow open that involved a set-up for a technological trick that was abandoned after the first skit sure didn’t help with the pacing or the buy in.
There’s a great show lurking inside Shakespeare(ish), it just needs someone to be merciless with a red pen to being it forth. As a Fringe piece? Well worth the time to see what they’ve got brewing.
Alright, that’s what I’ve vide’d so far… here’s a little about the two I’m most eager to see.
First up is the Hamlet-Mobile. Two of the producers of perennial Fringe favorite Lost Moon Radio—which is taking a break this year—are producing a series of pop-up performances based on Hamlet in a converted van. This brings together so much that I love: Shakespeare, pop-ups, non-traditional staging, and the creative ingenuity of Lauren Ludwig and Monica Miklas.
The best thing is that the performances are free, and you can find the van by following the Twitter handle @hamletmobile, as if it were one of LA’s still-ubiquitous food trucks.
On the more interactive front is the piece Getting To Know You, which I’m starting to hear buzz about.
This is how the show is described on the Fringe site:
This is the world premiere for award winning writer Annie Lesser’s first interactive theater piece. Each audience member experiences moments of increasing intimacy with various characters. 18+. 8 Audience Member Limit. No Late Admittance.
It’s like someone knows exactly what kind of tease will get me to sign over my time.
I’ll have notes on Hamlet-Mobile and Getting To Know You, and maybe some others, next week.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival is on now through June 28th.