The Fringe binge continues

latest dance craze.jpg
Zombies from the Beyond. John Santo.

We're in the middle of the Hollywood Fringe season, although not the Hollywood Fringe Festival itself -- which officially ended Sunday.

Post-festival runs have been announced for more than 50 of the Fringe productions - out of a total of 290 shows. At least a few of these extended shows probably would have been running this month even if the Fringe hadn't existed.

During this year's festival, as I tried to devise a filter to help me decide which shows to see, I was drawn primarily to multi-character shows (as opposed to solos) that were produced by established LA companies, especially those that operate here during the rest of the year. I was hoping that emphasizing such shows would maximize my chances of seeing something worthwhile in the completely non-curated Fringe crapshoot.

After all, an ongoing LA company has to think about its long-term audience, as opposed to out-of-town producers who arrive only for two-week stands or even home-grown one-shot showcase producers. And, because it's logistically easier for an established LA company to extend a Fringe show, these companies produce many of the shows with extensions.

In fact, after five years of the Hollywood Fringe, I don't care how many newcomers it attracts to LA each year. Ambitious theater-related talent arrives in LA every day of the year, with or without the Fringe, and every weekend it seems as if at least a handful of newcomers' shows manage to find theaters to showcase their talents - many of them in the Hollywood district.

No, the Fringe is useful because it provides a structure in which established LA artists can develop their work. Or they can revive successful shows they've already done (as Theatre of NOTE did this year with "Disassembly") -- but for audiences that (theoretically) extend beyond their usual supporters into the ranks of those who are attracted with the assistance of Fringe marketing.

The Fringe is also stimulating because its concentrated geographical area and its concentrated time frame - which creates the ability to see a Tuesday matinee, if you so choose -- help convey an impression of heightened creative ferment, even if most of the Fringe shows don't approach the average quality of the productions that arise from our more far-flung outposts throughout the rest of the year. (By the way, the Fringe itself was more far-flung this year. Its 29 venues - nine more than last year -- included two that are on the east side of Western Avenue. One of these was also south of Melrose, on turf that usually isn't considered part of Hollywood.)

OK, I understand why most of the established LA companies - especially those with their own homes — avoid the Fringe. Why get lost in the crowd? However, unless they have built-in subscription audiences, perhaps they should also avoid producing their own shows elsewhere in LA during the Fringe period, because those shows run the risk of getting lost in the crowd, too. I recently noticed an offer of free tickets to a production at an established venue far from the Fringe activity.

Bitter Lemons, the website that provides handy links to reviews of LA shows, more or less ignored most of the non-Fringe theater scene during the past few weeks. As I write this on July 2, Bitter Lemons has yet to run links to reviews of the Geffen's "The Country House" and the Ahmanson's "The Last Confession," although both shows opened three weeks ago. The site's editor Colin Mitchell was busy participating in the Fringe this year, with his solo show "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights," so the absence of such links is understandable. Still, it's important for the site's Lemon Meter to include links to independent reviews of the larger shows. Larger companies have a lot more money to spend on one-sided advertising than do the producers of smaller shows - and consequently there's probably more public curiosity about whether the larger shows measure up to the hype. (For the record, I've already written about how much I liked "The Country House," but I didn't get much redemption out of "The Last Confession.")

Still, if many of LA's most mature companies justifiably avoid the Fringe, newer LA companies and especially homeless LA companies might well benefit from Fringe participation.

Let's look at some of those shows from LA companies that produced in the Fringe and are now continuing after the Fringe.

Zombina.jpgI've been remiss in not previously seeing anything from the Visceral Company, but I'm glad I saw its "Zombies From the Beyond" as part of the Fringe, at the Lex. James Valcq's goofy musical, in its West Coast premiere, is a full-length take-off on cheesy '50s sci-fi films -- with occasional subversive dashes of 21st-century feminism thrown into the mix. It's one of the rare examples of this genre that doesn't wear out its welcome before the final curtain. Dan Spurgeon's staging is powered by the extraordinary vocal stylings of Alison England as Zombina, the chief alien (right). Preposterously attired, she delivers a performance that could make this show a late-night cult favorite for years - if her voice holds up.

"Dorian's Descent," a musical from Doma Theatre, is less likely to ascend. Chris Raymond's score has a few good moments, amid the excess. But this umpteenth adaptation of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is way too long (please, drop the entire character of the Demon who makes Dorian do it.) And it contains some rather awkward moments - for example, decades after Dorian's spurned lover commits suicide, her revenge-seeking brother is temporarily misled by the fact that Dorian hasn't aged along with his portrait. Yet the brother himself is played by the same young actor who played him earlier - and this actor, too, doesn't look as if he has aged at all. If Dorian isn't the only character whose appearance resists the passing years, isn't the point of the story blurred?

On to non-musicals.

I didn't see an earlier LA production of Gregory Crafts' "Friends Like These," but it's worth more attention. His company, Theatre Unleashed, unleashed an excellent revival for the Fringe and beyond, staged by Wendy Gough Soroka. At the beginning, Crafts quickly signals that a school shooting is going to happen -- but as he flashes backward to recent events that illustrate the social turmoil in the lives of several students, we're not sure who's going to start shooting. That the teenagers are involved in extra-curricular fantasy role-playing events intensifies the suspense. Crafts' focus is rigorously disciplined - he's not writing about parents or teachers, and we don't learn how the shooter got a gun.

no-homos-ds.jpgBrandon Baruch's "No Homo - A Bromantic Tragedy" won the Fringe First award as the best premiere. It's headed not only toward an LA extension at Theatre Asylum but toward the curated New York International Fringe Festival. Set in LA (extra points for this choice), the play is a wry look at two young men who are best friends, roommates, and supposedly straight - but their friends assume that they're really lovers. Jessica Hanna of Bootleg Theater fame directs a skilled cast (it won the Fringe ensemble award.) Baruch introduces more psychological knots instead of tying up the existing ones, which is refreshing, although it seems odd that no one mentions the word "bisexual," especially regarding the one guy who's actively pursuing a girlfriend. Wouldn't someone naturally bring up the "B" in "LGBT"?

"Things Being What They Are," a Moving Arts production that will continue a run at the Complex, is also about male bonding, although in this case the two men are middle-aged neighbors -- one divorced and one in a troubled marriage -- who have just met as the play begins. Wendy MacLeod's play is a little too committed to predictable tropes about men with very different personalities who find a common bond amid their crises. It feels especially wan in comparison to her "The Water Children," about the abortion controversy - I wonder if that 1998 play would still hold up? Darin Anthony directed.

Lower photo from "No Homo" by Clarke Surrey

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