Hollywood Fringe Festival Week 3: Real and Unreal

“Unreal City” is one of several Hollywood Fringe Festival shows we review this week.

The ninth annual Hollywood Fringe Festival is barreling toward its closing date of June 24th, making this your last week to see a show about Joan Rivers, Abbie Hoffman and Osama Bin Laden (yes, that’s one show) or a cabaret billed as a rousing call to love in action, with theatrical-jazz-folk fusion and acute audience interplay.

Sure, the Fringe can be wacky and self-indulgent, but it’s also raw and heartfelt. I’ve seen almost two dozen shows since June 1…and while not all were great, each had something that made it worthwhile. So step over the garbage, maneuver around the sets-in-waiting outside stage doors and the homeless tents lining the side streets, and embrace the warts-and-all Hollywood experience.

Pick of the Week: Best Buddies: The Hip-Hop Musical, written, composed and directed by Conor Hanney. Playing at the Broadwater, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. 55 minutes.

The feel-good show of the Fringe, Best Buddies draws you in with a story about archetypal high schoolers freaking out over prom and wows you with its warm and witty spirit. The songs, including “That’s What Makes a Buddy” and “Two Birds, One Stone,” expand the joy. A standing ovation to the talented and loving crew that made this show a crowd favorite.

Fringe has plenty of shows on the theme of women and their empowerment.

Standout: Fort Huachuca, written by Ailema

Sousa, directed by Amen Igbinosun. Playing at the OMR Theatre at the Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd. 1 hour.

Based on true events, Fort Huachuca tells the story of  five African-American nurses stationed stateside during World War II, but itching to get overseas. They spar and bond, love and lose, all while giving their best to their country and their commanding officer. The real-life Susan Freeman (Darnell Rhea), who achieved the rank of Captain, makes only a minor appearance here and remains a Hidden Figure. Her charges, however, are fully formed. The imposing Thelma Johnson (Natalia Elizabeth), with outsized energy and a need to lead, runs the barracks, but the others all find their opportunity to shine, especially the soft-spoken Elinor, played by the playwright, Ailema Sousa.

Characters in “Fort Huachuca”

Worth a Ticket: The Terrible Legend of Victoria Woodhull, by Theo Salter, directed by Karen Louisa Linton. Playing at the Hobgoblin Theater, 6520 Hollywood Blvd. 55 minutes.

Also ripped from the pages of history is this world premiere. Ashley Ford stars as the first woman to run a brokerage, testify before Congress and even run for president, decades before women could vote. Ford inhabits Victoria Woodhull in all her complexities, from her devout belief in women’s rights to her career as a traveling clairvoyant and her sexually free lifestyle. A worthy introduction to an unsung historical figure (Brie Larson has signed to play Woodhull in a movie).

In the mood for a comedy? Check out Kiss My Ax, six short plays by members of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, all of which feature a prop ax. The stories range from the self-conscious (in Joe Godfrey’s “Alexa,” a playwright begs Alexa for help coming up with a plot) to the wild and kooky (in the best of the bunch, Rom Watson’s Norma Gets the Ax,” Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, on work release after 12 years in prison – and played in drag by Bret Shefter – is cast in a movie to save the studio money). The show is directed by ALAP co-chair Dan Berkowitz, whose own piece, “Lesbian Vixens of the SS Who Stopped Living and Became Ax-Wielding Zombies,” breaks the fourth wall and gives actors AnnaLisa Erickson, Royana Black and JP Hubbell what looks like the time of their lives. Shefter’s original musical pieces and Ewan Chung’s clever interstitials add to the fun. Playing at the McCadden Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place. 1 hour.

From “Kiss My Ax”

Would you like a show that’s both a workout and a brain teaser? Try the immersive and apocalyptic Unreal City. Your ticket brings you cryptic instructions, an online quiz, and a lengthy waiver you’ll sign during check-in outdoors on Vine Street. Then you and your group will be race-walking down trash-strewn sidewalks, through alleys, up and down stairs, and into theaters, a schoolyard, a bar and even a tent – all in a quest to save the world from an evil queen. Or something. Drawn from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with a dollop of Cats, Unreal City is confusing but engaging. Refresh your memory: read the poem first and it might make more sense. There’s a cast of more than two dozen, so that strange-looking guy on the corner just might be part of the show. Oops, he’s not! Note: If you go with friends, expect to be separated, as the “audience” is divided, subdivided and snatched away by different characters to follow different subplots. Produced by 2cents Theatre Group, created by Tiffany Asta & Kristen Boulé. 80 minutes.

Checking in at “Unreal City”

Other notables:

The 1977 New York City blackout is the backdrop for a play about two people who may or may not be a couple in I Stop Breathing When You Smile (a title that bears no discernable relation to the story). Cass (Umar Malik), got caught up in the looting that overtook the city, and is seeking refuge from Tessy (Em Hoggett). Strangely, Tessy’s apartment is the only spot with power – the better to put on a show with, my dear. She plays the piano, they yell and fight, his bag may or may not be filled with money…a lack of coherence keeps the characters at arm’s length, from themselves and us. Produced by the two actors, known as Enfyrian Images. Playing at the Broadwater, 1078 Lillian Way. 50 minutes.

“I Stop Breathing When You Smile”

Finally, there’s Manson’s Girls, and – wait for it – it’s a musical. Instead of riffing on the dark days when Charles Manson terrorized Los Angeles, this show presents “the family” almost nostalgically.  The “girls” (and a couple of guys) in great period costumes, idolize their leader, simulate sex and confront a very pregnant Sharon Tate (Lauren Byrd). They’re all here, including Linda Kasabian (Erinn Elizabeth O’Sullivan), Patty Krenwinkel (Lia Peros) and a wild-eyed “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauran Dewey). But the star is indisputably Charlie (Troy Armand Barboza), and it’s hard to watch him wreak his psychological and physical damage. The musical numbers, which range from ‘60s-sounding to classic show tunes, are disassociated from the action: characters step over to a microphone in front of the band at the side of the stage. Produced by New Musicals Inc. Playing at the Broadwater. 90 minutes.

[For more reviews from this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, see Laura Foti Cohen’s earlier stories here and here.]

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About Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Neo Ensemble Theatre in Hollywood.

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