Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

So I was standing on line for the Men’s room with longtime LA theater critic Don Shirley, and I asked him: “How many Fringe shows did you see?”  He gave me an incredulous look and said, “None.”  I asked why not?  “Because it’s all so evanescent.”  All theater is evanescent, I said. “But it’s just a few shows, then it’s over.  What’s the point?”

“You love theater, right?” I told him.  “You’re missing some really good shows.”

It’s true, dear reader.  Netflix will still be there when you get back.  Fringe is a live festival.  It can’t go on without you.

It’s over now, except not completely – there are encore performances of many excellent shows.  Personally, I make a compact with all the shows I see that in exchange for a press pass, I will give them coverage.  And I follow through on this promise, unless I have nothing constructive to say.  Which is not the case for the following shows.

WE ARE NOT THESE HANDS by Sheila Callaghan

Okay, well, it is somewhat the case here.  This play is written in a very private language, very personal to the playwright, in which issues of sexual shame and freedom alternate with a video crawl about worker exploitation and other capitalist misdeeds.  What is the connection?  I don’t know, and the playwright didn’t give me enough to grab onto to spark any fruitful dialogue.  I do admire Ms. Callaghan’s courage to put it all out there in raw form, but I think that her most powerful works still give us enough narrative to allow us to enter the world she has created and to care about what’s going on.  That didn’t happen for me here.  But actors Cecily Glouchevitch, Emily James and Albert Dayan are all wonderful (whatever they’re doing), especially Dayan, who is simply a great comedic actor.

TALKING BLUES: Two One Acts by Cecilia Fairchild

Cecilia Fairchild writes beautiful lines, lines that lilt and lines that haunt, lines that reminded me of the songs of Lucinda Williams mixed with the plays of Sam Shepard about lost souls in the mythic west.  What she doesn’t do yet is write haunting plays.  Fairchild describes these two plays as being about “the way memory fuses itself to us, no matter how far we think we’ve come.”  But that’s not a very dramatic idea, and both her plays suffer from a lack of dramatic stakes.  In both cases, the past is being rehashed to no particular purpose other than the fact it is haunting. She is blessed in the first play, Family Tradition, by great performances from her two actors, Claudia Elmore and Darrett Sanders, as a half-Native American daughter who is haunted by her abusive white father.  This is by far the better of the two plays, and there is some resonance here, a toxic bond that has spiritual depth and something to say about the American origin story.  But it’s still not very dramatic and only succeeds because of Elmore’s brilliance.  The second play, Best of my Love, follows the tried and true formula of divorced couples meeting at a social event (here it’s a funeral) and rehashing old arguments as they try to figure out who they are to each other now.  The author plays the ex-wife, and she has a sexy stage presence until (ironically) she suddenly strips down to a bikini, assuming the form of her younger self.  It’s a silly strategy, undercutting the seriousness of the author’s intentions.

BREATHER by Marilyn Fu

Breather is a sweet and funny four-hander that starts with an intriguing idea and builds it into a play that may have a future.   The idea she builds on bears some resemblance to the romantic comedy The Night We Never Met, in which Matthew Broderick alternates occupancy of an apartment with Annabelle Scioria, except instead of alternating days and nights, these two sets of strangers alternate rental hours in a room on Hollywood Blvd.  Camille Mana and Jordan Bielsky ply the tourist trade on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as Princess Elsa and Zorro respectively and seek refuge in this room as each contemplates the future.  Mariah Bonner is studying Orgasmic Meditation with instructor Graham Sibley, who insists that they maintain a “professional relationship” even as he embarks on the stimulation of her clitoris.  The scenes are well-written and touching, but the event that finally brings two of these strangers together seems far-fetched.  At present the play ends at the most dramatic moment.  Hopefully the playwright will write the next scene sometime soon, then maybe we’ll see Breather again in a commercial venue.

TRIPTYCH, a new play by Lee Wochner

Lee Wochner’s fascinatingly nasty new play might also be titled, “Who Put the Trip in Triptych?”  It’s a very trippy excursion into the contemporary clash of art and money, with money having all the fun at the expense of the poor artist.  The play features a balls-to-the-wall performance by Laura Buckles as an investment banker whose big gamble has finally paid off big-time, giving her free reign to make the rest of the world as miserable as she was while having doors slammed in her face.  Darla Bailing is also wonderful as Trudy, the struggling artist who may have finally found a patron.  I had problems with some of the play’s narrative.  We’re told that Trudy has never sold a single painting, and yet she is being given a one-woman show at a commercial gallery.  Sorry but that doesn’t happen, no matter what “favors” she may be doing for the gallery owner.  Simply not believable, and the entire play really hinges on accepting that as fact.  It’s also not believable that selling a painting for $700 would somehow lead to another sale for almost $30,000.  I also had question about the husband of Laura Buckles’ character and what his feelings are about his wife’s affairs – assumptions can be made, but there seems to be some room for filling in some of his blanks.  I hope Mr Wochner does some further development of his play, as his dialogue is first-rate, and his ending is very disturbing and relevant, if somewhat unearned.

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, Book by Dan Knighton, Score by Dan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn

I freely admit that I didn’t have much hope for this production and would probably not have gone if one of the actors (Caitlin Gallogly) had not performed in one of my Fringe plays back in 2013.  After all, word of mouth hadn’t been that great about the Broadway production some years ago, and it hasn’t been revived all that much since.  Imagine my surprise then to find this such a delightful and engaging experience.  Congratulations must go to director Katharine McDonough for somehow finding a way to stage a large-scale spectacle of a musical on a postage-stamp-sized stage.  I know from what Caitlin told me that they didn’t have much rehearsal time, yet Ms. McDonough (who also choreographed) keeps everything moving fluidly with style and grace.  Characters are fully-developed and I found myself caring about them, no matter how silly much of the story is and how mediocre the lyrics are.  Credit must go to the actors, all of whom are remarkably talented and up for the challenge.  The three principals are all excellent and entirely worthy of a far larger venue.   Caitlin is very effective and affecting in the female lead, Marguerite St. Just, who leaves her French lover Chauvelin –  the right hand man of Robespierre, leader of the French Revolution – for the British nobleman Percy Blakeney.   Stanton Morales is superb as Blakeney, who will soon secretly take up arms against France as The Scarlet Pimpernel; he has a lovely singing voice and a witty way about that can turn serious in a heartbeat.  He is matched in excellence, however, by Marc Ginsburg, who sings with power and masterful control, exuding star quality.  Cole Cuomo also shines in the dual roles of Ozzy (a member of the Pimpernel’s gang) and Robespierre.  How Ms. McDonough was able to coax all these remarkable performers to bring their talents to the raggedy Underground Theatre is beyond me.  But I’m so glad she did, as this production was certainly one of the unexpected triumphs of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe.  Brava, Katharine McDonough!





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.