🎭 HFF19: And it starts… #1 “She Kills Monsters” | #2 “Trump Family Special”

userpic=fringeSaturday night was our first night “Fringing” for 2019. Translating that for the uninitiated: that means the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) has started. The Fringe Festival consists of around 385 live performance shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. Comedies, dramas, and variety shows. One person to large cast. All taking place in the smaller intimate theatres (99 seats and under, as opposed to the thousands of seats at the big boys). Some shows work, and some are duds. But that’s how a festival is.


She Kills Monsters (HFF19 | Hobgoblin Theatre)Both of our shows Saturday night were at the Hobgoblin Playhouse (FB), a pop-up venue that appears during Fringe, operated by the team behind Studio/Stage and Theatre Unleashed. The first was to have been a revue of Tom Lehrer music, but the producer had to withdraw due to a death in the family. Together we say “Awww” because that was a show we really wanted to see, but given the circumstances, condolences to the producer. As a result, our first show was a traditional play, a show that has been mounted at venues large and small across the country: She Kills Monsters (HFF19, WWW, FB) by Qui Nguyen.

Nguyen, on her webpage, describes the show thusly: “Average Agnes is finally leaving her childhood home following the death of her sister Tilly. However when she stumbles upon Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook, Agnes embarks on an action-packed adventure to discover more about her geeky sibling than she previously cared to know. A heartwarming comedy about loss, bullies, and dragons!”

She Kills Monsters was a great start to the 2019 Fringe. In terms of story, not Fringy at all. The well constructed story focuses on Agnes, an admitted average high school teacher, who lost the rest of her family in a car crash. She finds her younger sister’s D&D notebook, and decides to go on the adventure that she wrote to learn more about her. Through battles in the role playing world, she gets to truly know and understand her sister, as well as her sister’s high-school friends and what role playing games can do for people. More importantly, she learns about herself and how to transcend her average life.

It is worth noting that the venue, Hobgoblin Playhouse, is D&D central: in addition to She Kills Monsters, the venue is host to a celebrity D&D game, as well as Tabletop the Musical, a new musical that is focused on D&D and its impact on a group of friends (which is well worth seeing). The production itself started as a staged reading at Stuart Roger’s acting studio.

Getting back to She Kills Monsters: We just loved the story of She Kills Monsters, and the message it sends on female empowerment and the positive aspects of role playing games. I never got into RPGs for the same reason that I’m a professional audience, and not either on stage or writing the stories: I can’t inhabit characters, or imagine their stories. But I know D&D players well; I knew folks who were deep in that community when I was in the UCLA Computer Club in the late 1970s. This captured that community, and the freedom that RPGs bring to their players.

The execution of She Kills Monsters was more fringy: minimal sets and costumes, as befits a kickstarted fringe show. Performances were generally strong, but at our preview performance there were a few line mishaps, and the cast was a bit less polished than might be seen in an established company’s fully realized production. That doesn’t make one difference at all to me; this is Fringe, after all. But the Fringe environment forces creativity on a low budget, and this show definitely had both.

In the lead positions were Susannah Snowden-Ifft (FB) as Tilly, and Vivi Thai (FB) as Agnes. This duo was also the producing team, serving as Executive Producer and Producer, respectively. Snowden-Ifft brought a wonderful nerdy-ness and vulnerability to Tilly, a high-schooler who repressed her personality in life, but found expression in the fantasy world of D&D where she could live the life she wanted. Snowden-Ifft did a great job of making the two personalities distinct. Thai’s Agnes was different. What I remember most was her reaction during the opening exposition, recoiling in horror at being characterized as being notable only in her average status. That wasn’t what she wanted in life: to be average. Thai captured the transformation of her character from average teenager and sister to a bad-ass warrior well. Both of them were a joy to watch, and you could see their passion for telling this story.

The remaining characters in the story all served to help Agnes and Tilly in their transformations, starting with the members of the RPG party: Harry Owen (FB) — Dungeonmaster (DM) Chuck; Reyneen Pedro (FB) — Kaliope / Kelly; Kristin Walker (FB) — Lilith / Lilly; and John Yang Li (FB) — Orcus / Ronnie. Most of these were drawn broadly, as D&D characters are: the warrior, the elf, the DM, the demon. But each performer brought a little something to those characterizations — a good sense of fun and playfulness. More importantly for the actual party characters was the characterizations they brought to those people outside the game, as the high school friends of Tilly. Of not here was Pedro’s transformation from the strong and sexy elf to the real-life person behind the elf. Great acting.

Also serving to help Agnes find herself were Zach Summers (FB) — Miles (6/8, 6/14; Andres Paul Ramacho (FB) for the last three performances in June); and Brad Milison (FB) — Steve. Summers was the clueless boyfriend of Agnes who misunderstood what Agnes was doing with this high school kid, and Millson was the red-shirt of the story: another D&D adventurer who kept being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both captured these broad stereotypes well.

Rounding out the cast in smaller and more various roles were Shikira Saul (FB) — Vera / Farrah / Evil Tina / The Beholder; and Blair Allison (FB) — Narrator / Evil Gabbi. Saul got to play the most varied roles, from jaded best friend of Agnes to high school cheerleader to various demons and monsters. She was best in her portrayal of Vera, Agnes’ friend, where she delivered some wonderfully sardonic lines that I’m sure most high school guidance counselors would love to say. Allison’s parts were smaller, although she did well with the narration and its tone.

Lastly, turning to the production side: The production was directed by Genny Wilson (FB), with no real credits for scenic design, costumes or those traditional departments. This isn’t surprising for Fringe, where you load in and out in 15 minutes. The sets were either non-existent or minimal — perhaps a few square boxes. There were projections used, as well as shadow puppets to show events like the car crash. Props and costumes were used to create characters and provide weapons as such, although there were no explicit credits for prop or costume design. Elliott Beltran (FB) did the sound design (mostly sound effects and establishing music), and Greg Crafts (FB) did the lighting design. The effective fight choreography was by Masa Kanome (FB) and Tadahiro Nakamura. Incidental music was composed by Darrin Stafford (FB). Beth Wallan (FB) was the stage manager. She Kills Monsters was produced by Vivi Thai (FB), with Susannah Snowden-Ifft (FB) as Executive Producer.

She Kills Monsters has four more performances during Fringe: Fri 6/14 @ 11pm; Sat 6/22 @ 9pm; Sun 6/23 @ 9:30pm; and Sat 6/29 @ 2:00pm. Tickets are available at their Fringe Page.


2nd Annual Trump Family Special (HFF19)The second show we saw last night, The 2nd Annual Trump Family Special, was both much more Fringe-y and more professional. On the professional side of the equation, this particular production had been mounted before: off-Broadway in New York, as well as previously in Hollywood. It had many cast members that were AEA and who had performed on Broadway and/or in National Tours. But the execution itself was on the Fringe side: improvisation at times, quick adaptation, improvised costumes and props at times, and a general playfulness that comes with the nature of a live variety show vs. a more scripted play such as She Kills Monsters.

The basic conceit of the show is that the Trump family — Melania, Ivanka, Eric, and Don Jr. — are putting on an annual variety show, hoping that their dad (the POTUS) will show up. Making special guest appearances are the earlier Trump wives — Marla Maples, Ivana Trump, as well as Jared Kushner. Missing in action, just as in real life, are Barron and Tiffany. Trump never shows, of course, but contributes to the proceedings through tweets. The content of the show is a both a politically incorrect appeal to their base, but much more a parody of their situation and personalities.

The show featured book and lyrics by Daniel Salles (FB), with music and additional lyrics by Tor Hyams (FB) and Lisa St. Lou (FB) / Tor and Lisa (FB). The book and songs generally poked at the well known images of the first family: Melania as the airhead model who hates her husband, Donald and Eric as generally stupid and sixest, the nature of Trump’s relationships to his ex-wifes, Ikanka as the power behind the throne, Jared Kushner as a puppet, etc. As such, it is both silly and plays to the LA audience well (as well as to the gay audience in particular, based on the attendance at our show). Examples of this are songs such as “Win, Win, Win”, “Look Gorgeous”, “Three Trophy Wives”, and perhaps the best political commentary, “It’s a Circus”, which presented the White House as a three-ring circus, with Donald as the ring-leader.

But I think the most telling song of the show was “MAGA/And Then He Tweets”. In the middle of a song about how great Trump is, there are asides from the Music Director talking about the reality of the world of Trump for gays and other minorities. This, I believe, was the true heart of the show.

Over the years at Fringe, I’ve seen numerous shows dealing with Trump. These have ranged from the totally warped Zombie Clown Trump, the Star-Trek mashup Trump in Space, and the quite good The Dangerous Cures of Dr. B, which uses the demagogue John Brinkley as an analogue for the pedagogy of Donald Trump. The 2nd Annual Trump Family Special does a great job of skewering the first family, their foibles and personalities, and how Trump relates to them. But does it make a strong cases or have a deeper meaning? Does it provide a particular insight into Donald Trump, his machinations, or the motivation behind his forms of evil. No. You get more of that from Planet MoneyThe 2nd Annual Trump Family Special is entertaining, but ultimately light on substance — reflecting perfectly the first family and the absence of substance and depth therein.

Under the direction of show creator Daniel Salles (FB), the show moves briskly and is entertaining. At our preview performance, the cast had to improvise around various problems, such as lights not being where expected and wardrobe malfunctions of various forms. They coped well, as trained actors do. Benji Schwimmer (FB)’s choreography was appropriate for the style of variety show — low budget — that the book made this show out to be.

The performances were strong. Perhaps the strongest — certainly the strongest and clearest voice — was that of Lisa St. Lou (FB) as Ivanka Trump and Ivana Trump. She had the bulk of the stage time, and was extremely strong in her songs and characterizations.

Playing her step-mother and first lady was Mary Birdsong (FB) as Melania. She was clearly having fun with the characterization, sang strongly, and dealt well with the preview issues.

Rounding out the cast were Ryan Murray (FB) as Eric, and John Shartzer (FB) as Donald Jr. Shartzer got double-duty as Marla Maples, and I believe it was Murray doing double duty as Mike Pence.  Both handled the comedy and the songs well.

Tor Hyams (FB) served as music director, and provided commentary and “directed” the variety show from behind the parameter. It was Hyams that provided the input on “And Then He Tweets” aspect I liked so well.

The NY scenic designer was David Goldstein; as there is no LA credit for this, presumably his design was transferred. The design was simple: some boxes, a fancy backdrop, a few props, and a Jared Kushner puppet that looked a lot like Jerry Mahoney. The NY costume design was by Vanessa Leuck (FB), with LA costumes credited to Wendell Carmichael (FB). Modulo a few costume malfunctions, the costumes generally worked. Johnnie Carmichael was the Sound Engineer; Greg Crafts (FB) did the lights. Tanya Nancy Telson (FB) was the stage manager, and Hannah Carroll (FB) and Sharon Logan are credited as “Backstage Superstars”, whatever that means. The lead LA producer was Victoria Watson Winkler (FB); there are numerous other producers and associate producers.

The 2nd Annual Trump Family Special has 6 more performances: Sun 6/9 @ 8pm; Thu 6/13 @ 830p; Fri 6/14 @ 7pm; Sat 6/15 @ 1030pm; and Sun 6/16 at 3pm and 10pm. Tickets are available through their Fringe site; through the show website; and discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2018-2019 season], and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) has started. If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

Key: : Non-Fringe Show/Event; °: Producer/Publicist Arranged Comp or Discount

As for July, it is already filling up. The first weekend of the month is still open. The second weekend brings An Intimate Evening with Kristen Chenowith at,The Hollywood Bowl (FB).  The third weekend of July brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). August ends with Mother Road at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (FB), and we might do rush tickets for Alice in Wonderland as well. In between those points, August is mostly open.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

 

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