Letter From the Fringe
Casual observations, along with reviews of Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, and The Wake
By Paul Birchall
With a bit of time to kill in my oh-so-hectic reviewing schedule, I found myself hanging out at the Asylum on Monday night. Not the lunatic asylum, but the Asylum Theatre that’s part of the Elephant Theater complex on Santa Monica Boulevard and Lillian Street, which is one of the centers for Hollywood Fringe shows this month.
When the Fringe is on, one of the great things is that you can stay put in a single place and the plays come to you, rotate in and out, and then move on. Don’t like a show you’re seeing? Well, all right: Here comes another one.
Another thing I’ve been startled to notice is that folks who keep telling you that LA Theater is dead or dying are completely misinformed: Show after show I’ve seen so far, even in the preview week, have been sold out to the point that the box office folk turn away almost a dozen people each hour. Lord help you if you don’t have an “in” to help you score a coveted seat, even for one of The Complex flea dens.
That was certainly the case for the Monday performance of playwright Colin Mitchell’s excellently moody Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, a remounting of his original 1994 production which Mitchell wrote and starred in. Mitchell is, as locals know, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the indispensable Bitter Lemons website – and it’s a pleasure to see him prove that he can put his money where his mouth is — not just opine upon the theatrical issues of the day, but also cut a mean theatrical figure on the stage as well.
Linden Arden might be best called a character portrait — it’s an attempt to create a living context for the protagonist of a famous Van Morrison song about a small-time crook who steals some cash and hides out in a remote village, until the past catches up with him in a terrifying way. Mitchell’s performance is suffused with geniality that lurches unexpectedly into flashes of rage and madness — it’s a fascinating if inscrutable acting turn that’s not just “organic” and believable, it also seems so natural, we almost wonder if it’s acting at all.
The show opens with Mitchell’s Arden greeting us with the easy going affability of a laid back barkeep – the performer passes out shots of real whiskey to any audience member who says yes to his invitation. And yet, his undercurrents of melancholy and anger – rather Tony Soprano-like, really – erupt with terrifying ease. If the show’s script comes across as being a tad light in the narrative scope department, Mitchell’s harrowing turn is enough to keep us engaged.
It is an interesting side element of The Fringe that, after a show, folks tend to congregate outside the theater like Stage Door Johnnies, sometimes waiting for the next show, sometimes just hanging out hoping to talk theater. The passion of the audience is delightful and palpable.
I found myself arguing about the merits of Mitchell’s show, for instance, with a young Colombian actor, recently arrived from New York, where he had worked with Judith Molina’s Living Theater. I asked him what brought him out to Los Angeles from New York, where he had a strong career going in the underground scene.
“Oh I dreamed about it,” the young actor replied. I noted that many folks have the dream of coming to LA and achieving stardom, but he just shook his head. “No, you don’t understand: I dreamed it. I had a dream in which I came out here, [so I] knew I had to.”
Even more of a surprise was the delight at the play that followed Mitchell’s opus in the exact same Asylum space — playwright performer Ben Moroski’s hilarious solo dark comedy The Wake, a pleasingly meta-romance about necrophilia and neuroses. Moroski, with impeccable comic timing, portrays a substitute teacher putting on a one-man workshop play in hopes of expiating his conflicted feelings over a simply appalling love affair he’s conducting with someone who might best be called a real stiff.
In director Nick Massough’s compellingly dynamic staging, Moroski exudes an insane energy, even as he also appears to strongly resemble every 20-something hipster we’ve ever seen with love troubles. It’s a fast-paced, constantly hilarious, offbeat show that takes the stock parameters of the Fringe’s one-hour format and turns it neatly into something strange, creepy, and joyfully funny. This is likely to be one of the big break-out solo-show hits of the Fringe.