Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


EASY TARGETS at Sacred Fools is simply the most fun you can have at the Hollywood Fringe, and one of the most fun evenings you will ever have at the theater.  There's an A evening (Male Actors) and a B evening (Female Actors); I've only seen the A, and it's such a hoot.  Can't wait to see B.  Don't forget money for socks.


Oh God, I keep having this dream where I'm running down Santa Monica Boulevard, desperately running towards a pulpit on the street where a 30 year old man or woman leans.  (It's hard to distinguish gender when your eyes are jumping up and down in your head, while you can hear yourself starting to wheeze.)  Then, just as I vault across the street and race up to the pulpit, the 30 year old opens the door, then closes it behind him or her.  I race up to the door, but it's locked!  Locked! I knock, but the door doesn't open.  And then I wake up, right?  Wrong. Because this is no dream, this is an all-too-real moment of FRINGE!

I did manage, however, to see these shows: Incantesimo, Fire and Light, The Brick, Why We Become Witches, Ladies in Waiting, Roughly Hamlet, Normal.

INCANTESIMO, written by Chris Philpott, performed by Riccardo Berdini

I freely admit to being a sucker for magic.  If the trick is presented and executed well, then I will gladly applaud and "Ooh" and "Aah" with the rest of the crowd. Yet I am also usually bored, as I know that at bottom what I've seen is just a trick, and that fooling me is not such a hard thing to do. But Incantesimo is something else entirely.  It's not "magic" in any traditional sense.  Riccardo Berdini, working from a script by Chris Philpott - or perhaps it's more of a strategy and an idea? - is more mentalist than magician, trying to read the minds of his audience, especially the songs that his subjects are thinking of. Because that is the theme of the evening- how music conveys the soul of humanity and of the individual, and how its power is far greater than we tend to recognize. Human beings emerged from the swamp with a hum and a song in our hearts - a song that Riccardo Berdini is somehow able to guess. How he is able to do this, I have no clue. No more than I was able to figure out his other feats. As I said, fooling me isn't that hard.  But getting me to think about the birth of civilization and the primal role that music plays in our development - well, that's pretty great. As is Fringe for giving such a show a forum.

THE BRICK: A One Man Musical, written and performed by Bill Berry

The idea that gives rise to Bill Berry's "One Man Musical," The Brick, has an almost uncanny connection to Riccardo Berdini's show. To quote Berry's description: "It's been said that there are three deaths: first when your body ceases to function. Then when your body is put in the grave. And third when your name ... is spoken for the last time." In Berry's case, his show has him going to the grave of his mother, with whom he had a tortured relationship, and deciding whether to forgive her or to allow her her name to die as well, suffering that "third death." This provides the frame for Berry to sing his offbeat folk songs, which are paradoxically comic in nature. The songs are all good, very distinctive and well-staged by Kelly De Sarla - my favorite was one about how he and his friends tried to steal a cardboard cutout of Steve Martin at the height of his "arrow through the head" fame. I also loved the title song, about how each person's life is defined by what he or she does with his/her brick. I have to admit that this mix of comedic songs within such a serious framework was an odd one and took some getting used to; but it grew on me, and in the end it seemed appropriate to the nature of Bill Berry's argument with his German mother, who was always telling him "you will never get anywhere with this clang-clang." She couldn't have been more wrong, as Berry's show vividly demonstrates. I hope it takes up residence in a Southland cabaret where it can be appreciated by the larger audience that it deserves.

WHY WE BECOME WITCHES by Kate Motzenbacker and Sal Nicolazzo

I will say right off the bat that this is probably my favorite show from the 2017 Fringe, and I urge everyone who appreciates wit, intelligence and a generosity of spirit to see it.  Adapated from Lolly Willowes, a 1926 novel by Syvia Townsend Warner, this 40 minute gem presents us with the wonderful character of "Aunt Lolly," wonderfully played by Lisa K. Wyatt in a thrillingly brilliant staging by Kate Motzenbacker (who also co-adapted it.)  Aunt Lolly is a woman in early 20th century England who "wakes up" at 47 to find herself a spinster aunt living with her portentous brother and his family, helping to raise his children, and entirely taken for granted. She has become in essence a non-person with no prospects. That's when she takes matters into her own hands and makes a move that promises her a liberation of spirit, even as her brother does everything in his power to block it. This is a one person show that feels populated by an entire world that Ms. Wyatt and Ms. Motzenbacker bring powerfully and delightfully to life. It also provides yet another example of why the Fringe is so important, since this show defies marketing labels almost as completely as it lays claim to our lasting attention.

THE LADIES IN WAITING: The Judgement of Henry VIII by James Cougar Canfield 

I saw a friend outside the Stephanie Feury Studio after this show, and she said with an ecstatic expression on her face: "Can you believe how great that was?"  I nodded politely and said, "Yes, very good," but the truth is, I was bored. There were some standout performances from the actresses playing the victims of Henry VIII's cruelty, especially Jennifer Haining as Anne of Cleves and Wendy K. Skuse as Anne Boleyn (but those were also the best-written roles). The author James Cougar Canfield also plays the lead, and he does so in workout sweats. The result is neither royal enough nor inventive enough. Canfield seems like basically a nice guy, which Henry VIII definitely wasn't. The result is big on bombast but low on charisma. Nothing is really at stake. The women say that it is their turn to pass judgment on Henry - an interesting idea, but Canfield doesn't take it anywhere. Henry doesn't care what these women have to say in death any more than he did in life, and he doesn't give a damn about the consequences. For me, Canfield's performance exemplifies everything that leaves me cold about British acting - all form, no substance. A major disappointment for me, though, as I said, others felt differently.

ROUGHLY HAMLET, adapted from Shakespeare's play by Micah Watterson

The publicity for this show describes it as "a fast-paced reimagining of one man's struggle to escape being trapped in his own mind, as he strives to make one single but very important decision, to be or not to be." That might make sense in some hypothetical other play, but it certainly has no bearing on the performance I saw. Dressed in a cheap blazer and trousers and wearing a red tie and red sneakers, Watterson seems most like a temp worker at a large corporation who is either having a fit of some kind or is intellectually jacking off during his break. I don't understand why he felt the need to create this cerebral burlesque from what is possibly the greatest play ever written. I definitely don't understand the red tie and sneakers. I can honestly say that there wasn't one single moment when I felt that Watterson had an idea that shed any light on the play or when I was glad I was there. It's possible that Watterson was inspired by Alan Cumming's one-man version of Macbeth.  (I use the word "inspired" very loosely here.) If that was indeed the case, then no, that was simply wrong-headed. Okay, break over, Micah. Now get back to work.

NORMAL by Anthony Neilson, Directed by David Mancini

This play is based on the real-life story of Peter Kurten, called both The Vampire of Dusseldorf and the Dusseldorf Monster. He murdered at least eight people back in 1929 and boasted about killing many more, including children. It's a fascinating story, as Kurten had no remorse whatsoever and freely admitted to enjoying his murders and to getting intense sexual satisfaction from these heinous acts. The story of Kurten inspired one of the greatest crimes dramas in cinematic history, Fritz Lang's M, starring Peter Lorre. It contains one of my favorite lines in movie history, when Lorre tells the German Underworld (who have captured him and put him on trial) that he rejects their verdict because "You have no idea what it is to be me." This production (by the Vagrancy Company) features a brilliant central performance by Steve Madar as Kurten and several horrifyingly effective theatrical images, but it is not satisfied with this and attempts to demonstrate how Kurten's evil corrupts the society around him, specifically the mind of his attorney, Justus Wehner, played by Arthur Keng. There is the germ of an interesting question here - does the society create the psychopath, or does the psychopath corrupt the society? But it is not really pursued. Instead we get a mishmash of horror images and psychodrama and a lot of shouting by Arthur Keng, as his character seems to have caught Kurten's psychosis as if it was the flu. It's too bad, as there are so many admirable things going on here, but it appears that director David Mancini's ambition to say too many things at once has sunk the venture, which began to resemble a summertime Haunted House. Save it for Halloween, friend.

FIRE AND LIGHT, Created by Stephanie Feury and Nathan Keyes

It has been a week since I've experienced this "immersive" and "interactive" production, and I'm still not sure what I think. It begins with a scene from a Christmas party - well no, that's not true. It began for me with a beautiful red-headed woman running around the Stephanie Feury Studio and calling out my name. When I stepped forward, she grabbed me and guided me towards the bathroom and closed the door. Then she stripped down to a red bra and panties while talking a mile a minute about her boyfriend, who had broken up with her because he felt like she didn't love him enough. I tried to give some sage advice about love, but this was a Hipster fantasy come to life, so while words were coming out of my mouth, I'm not really sure what I was saying. There was some kissing and a few other things transpired, then we went into this 1940s Christmas party, which involved more stripping and kissing (between the actors this time, not with me or anyone else in the select audience), then we were transported to another location, where a man dressed as a Bedouin Chief  engaged in some ritualized behavior with us and and with a ghost of his wife and then stripped off his clothes (definitely a theme) and exited the tent - perhaps for the afterworld. Oh, and on the ride back to our place of origin, there was an unexpected dance by a lovely blond girl on the bus. On the whole, there was a lot of rich imagery about dreams and love and loss, about the fleeting sensations of life and the many illusions that rule our time here, but for me it will always be mostly a Hipster dream come true about a beautiful red-headed woman in scarlet underwear. Sadly, the Fire section has completed its performance schedule. It was a memorable ride, and ah yes, the memory lingers.

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.