Friday, June 3, 2016

A Hit and a Miss

Two Plays Previewed at the Hollywood Fringe

Sometimes you just get lucky. In a city like Los Angeles, two strangers can find themselves with way too many choices for their entertainment. That's how we found ourselves this evening, debating whether to see this or go there or do that. In the end, we trotted down to Santa Monica Boulevard for a press-preview production of a new play, and ended up seeing two, as this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival shakes out the bugs in anticipation of next week's official opening.

The first play was The Big Snake, or How I Got Eaten Alive on National Television and Lived to Tell About It.  Billed as An American Farce by Tom Cavanaugh, it had the rough feeling of an unfocussed rant tossed off in an afternoon, staged on short notice with minimal rehearsal and little thought given to some stage basics. The character of Justin, played by Mykee Selkin, seemed particularly lost on the stage in his early scenes, resorting to aimless pacing as though no blocking had been discussed beforehand. He gave the impression that he was a late addition to the cast, on more than one occasion missing the timing of his lines, like a starving artist with a hot sandwich waiting for him in the wings. (In fairness, I should mention that as the play went on, this impression lifted and he grew some into the role.)

The play revolves around Justin's attempt to produce a reality television program involving the titular Big Snake. There are some gratuitous jokes about the pathetic nature of reality television, which got some knowing laughs from the show-people crowd, most of whom seemed to be connected in some way with the festival and the people in this production; afterwards on the sidewalk they exchanged hugs and air-kisses and congratulatory lauds, despite the almost painful shortcomings of the show. Justin and his wife Corinne (played by Jen Faith Brown) enlist Jake "The Snake" lePetomane to star in their idiotic pilot about ... well, you figure it out. Damien Luvara's performance as Jake was easily the worst of the night. It hurt to listen to his accent wander the English-speaking world, jumping in a single line from Hobart to Hilton Head and back.

The best part of the production was the writing for, and performances by, the first five characters introduced: The Director (played by Bob Telford), The Critic (Allan Steele), The Patron of the Arts (Marina Palmier), the Romantic (DeAnn Odom), and the Ticket Buyer (Mary Cavaliere). These spurious audience members brought on stage had most of the best lines, and performed their parts with gusto and zest, while the play-within-the-play languished for want of energy, polish and wit.

This could be a rough-cut gem; with more than a week to go before the next showing there's plenty of time for tightening of the script and polishing of individual performances. And maybe the costumes could be given a little professional attention. It could be that this play is worth taking a chance on, when the festival proper gets under way.

The second play, Macdeth, is already good enough to heartily recommend. A romping retelling of the unmentionable Scottish play, it will prove a treat to anyone with a love of the great Bard's cadence and an appreciation of rhyming couplets as an art form. Putting aside the writer's fuzzy opinions about American politics and recent events, and accepting the now obligatory unexamined and approving views of nontraditional sex, this spoof is great fun well done. There is no fourth wall anywhere in the show; the audience is brought into it at the very beginning and pushes along with the cast through the entire thrilling tale, barely able to digest one elegantly funny line before the next strides into the fray.

From an all-round excellent cast, it proved difficult in conversation with a friend after the show to single out the finest performance of the piece, and I had to settle for naming three ... no, four. These were Ryan J-W Smith, author of the play, who portrayed the title character; Helena Grace Donald as Lady MacDeth; Jason Linforth as Banquo; and Ryan Stiffelman as both a fruity Duncan and the hilariously hammy MacBuff. If I did have to pick only one, it would undoubtedly be ... no; no, I can't choose. I just can't.

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