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Four at the Hollywood Fringe Festival
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, The God Particle Complex,
Speed Merchant (of Venice)
and Tape

Also see Sharon's review of Los Otros

Holmes
John Mawson and Mario Vernazza
I was lucky enough to see The Secret of Sherlock Holmes in its original incarnation some 23 years ago. Jeremy Paul had written the play for Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. The pair had been rather brilliantly portraying Holmes and Watson on television, and Paul's play was a vehicle to enable them to take their characterizations to the stage. As an audience member, the script had two things to recommend it: first, it allowed us to see Brett and Hardwicke recreate their definitive (for the era) interpretation of the roles in a sampling of some of Conan Doyle's best known moments; second, it allowed us to hear, from the very lips of Brett's Holmes, how much Watson actually meant to him. Having seen Brett's Holmes be distant and dismissive of Hardwicke's Watson on a regular basis, hearing him say—even in muttered thoughts not directly spoken to Watson—that the man was a good friend on whom he genuinely depended provided a welcome balm.

Seeing the play in the Hollywood Fringe Festival listings brought it all back. It also raised the question of how the play would stand alone, without having its characters played by actors who, for some years previous, had pretty much owned the roles. Unfortunately, it doesn't fare all that well. The bulk of the script simply revisits Conan Doyle's stories. It doesn't go into any particular story with any great detail; it just gives a quick overview of a few, and brief nods to several others. To be fair, several audience members laughed out loud at some of Holmes's deductions and disguises, suggesting that the material plays better to someone not all that familiar with the original tales. But if you already know your Conan Doyle, there's very little here to interest when the actors themselves aren't the big draw.

The actors here are serviceable, but, at least with Holmes, bigger than life is called for. Due to the nature of the script, John Mawson's Holmes is a bit more open with his feelings than most Holmeses, but if he's going to have moments of reflection and emotional expressiveness, he needs more tempestuousness to balance it out. I found myself longing for his Holmes to be more distant, more of a jerk. It isn't that this role requires a Holmes in the style of Brett, but it does need a performance in which Holmes's statements of friendship with Watson are the exception, not the guiding star. Mario Vernazza has a bit more luck with Watson, although he occasionally falls into the trap of Watson being a doofus to Holmes, rather than an intelligent man of science.

The Fringe setting of this production, in which the set is a black box with a couple of nondescript chairs and a table in it, does the show no favors. While we're all willing to suspend disbelief in the theater, the sitting room in 221B is very nearly a third character in the stories and its absence is clearly felt here. (Indeed, Holmes taking his tobacco from a pouch, rather than the toe of a Persian slipper, seems like sacrilege.) It just serves to underline the fact that this script, by itself, is nothing special.

A Mawson Vernazza Production. The Secret of Sherlock Holmes by Jeremy Paul. Directed by Amir Korangy. Sound design by Matthew Bugg.

Cast:
Holmes - John Mawson
Watson - Mario Vernazza

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and runs selected dates through June 24 at Theatre Asylum. For tickets, see hollywoodfringe.org/projects/756.


The God Particle Complex

God Particle Complex

The God Particle Complex is pretty much exactly what some people expect when they think of Fringe shows: a work-in-progress just out of the staged reading phase, under-rehearsed, on a shoestring budget, featuring such memorable imagery as alien-types wearing collars made out of bubble wrap. There may well be a genuinely good play hiding in this self-proclaimed "science farce," but it isn't fully developed yet, and the loopy direction doesn't particularly help.

The concept is actually a pretty good one. What would happen, the show asks, if the scientists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) conclude that the Large Hadron Collider has failed in its mission to document the existence of the Higgs Boson particle? As the show explains, Higgs Boson is a particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. If Higgs Boson does not, in fact, exist, the Standard Model is wrong, everything we thought we knew about particle physics is mistaken, and the nature of the universe is pretty much up for grabs. It's a big deal. Everyone expects Higgs Boson to be there; if CERN conclusively concludes that it isn't, that pulls the rug out from underneath science.

The God Particle Complex introduces these concepts in a clever way that's easy to understand—having two people collide around the stage like particles in the accelerator, while someone else explains. Shortly thereafter, we hear a press conference in which the President of CERN announces that, in fact, they've got enough data to establish that Higgs Boson definitely does not exist.

Two CERN scientists are shocked by the news. Dr. Feldman takes things somewhat philosophically, concluding that, even though we didn't learn what we thought we'd learn, we learned something, and that's always a good thing. Besides, if the Standard Model is wrong, that opens up the possibility that his own wacky view of the universe is correct. Dr. Fleurmon is rather more distraught; his entire world view (not to mention his life's work) has been destroyed, and he's nearly paralyzed by fear of the now unknown. Both Scott Harris as Feldman and Andrew Wheeler as Fleurmon play up the comedy in their roles; they are your standard scientists who lack social skills. Indeed, they are introduced as "self-important, self-congratulatory bozos." This may not be the best way to approach the characters; there's nothing particularly funny about over-nerding up these guys, and the unfunny comedy buries the interesting philosophical discussion.

A similar problem occurs later in the play, when Feldman and Fleurmon are visited by a time-traveller (wearing a silver bodysuit and goggles). The visitor has a critical message for Dr. Fleurmon, but it's hard to take him seriously with all of Karl Ramsey's scenery-chewing. This plotline itself is interesting; it's a new twist on the problem of the time-traveller changing the past, and it leaves Feldman and Fleurmon trying to puzzle their way out of the destruction of the universe they'd simply been trying to understand.

When the play is throwing causality loops, multi-dimensional science, and micro black holes at us, it would do better to cut down on the unrestrained silliness in the execution, and let the play, and the humor inherent in it, speak for itself.

Art Via Corpora presents The God Particle Complex written and produced by Chris Bell and Joshua Zeller. Directed by Debbie McMahon. Set and Sound Design by Chris Bell; Poster artwork by Nathan Kornelis; Publicity by Joshua Zeller.

Cast:
Sven - Roy Starr
Dr. Feldman - Scott Harris
Dr. Fleurmon - Andrew Wheeler
CERN Public Relations - Kate Grabau
The President of CERN - Brian Brophy
The Visitor - Karl Ramsey
The Cosmic String - Elyse Ashton & Kevin Dulude

The God Particle Complex is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and runs selected dates through June 18 at Artworks Theatre. For tickets, see hollywoodfringe.org/projects/996.


Speed Merchant (of Venice)

Speed Merchant

First, the bad news: Action Theatre Company's Speed Merchant (of Venice) isn't quite what it says on the tin. The press release promises a tale in which Antonio is a "corporate killer," and a production which takes inspiration "from recent tales of corporate malfeasance and the reality show antics of the Kardashians." If you're expecting a free-wheeling romp of a play which follows only the broad outlines of Shakespeare's play, adding to the Bard's writings a more playful text loosely inspired by The Merchant of Venice, you'll be disappointed.

Now, the good news: What you will get is a 90-minute pared-down version of Merchant, which abridges rather more than it changes. While there are a few smart modern touches, usually conveyed via sound effects and costumes, this production is surprisingly faithful to the original. It has some genuinely good performances in it, and, by cutting a lot out of the play, the adaptation has a sharper focus on Shylock's story, making his journey much more effective.

In Speed Merchant, Jack Young gives us a Shylock who is simply pushed past his limits. Frequently taunted, his Shylock tries to make peace with his persecutors, and take a live and let live attitude. But the Christians are uninterested. His "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech comes out of a cornered animal, and gains him no sympathy. When Shylock is in obvious emotional pain after his daughter has run away, Antonio's friends mock him mercilessly, and he is driven past all reason. When he repeats for Antonio to "look to his bond," he is clinging to the piece of paper as the last refuge of a man who has lost everything. It's a compelling interpretation.

One place in which the creativity of the adaptation comes through is in the casket-selection for Portia's hand. The production turns it into a reality game show. (Nerissa says "Choose the Right Casket!" as though she were saying "Wheel of Fortune!") The show gets some great laughs with well-placed game show sound effects. More than that, the game show concept provides a perfect explanation for why Portia is superficial when talking about her suitors, but still has the brain power to pretend to be the Doctor of Laws—she was just making good television.

There are places where the production seems to try too hard. When Jessica escapes dressed as a boy, she's dressed as Harry Potter for some reason. Nikki Jenkins gives a legitimate portrayal of Arragon, one of the failed suitors, and Arragon is genuinely chastened when learning the contents of the silver casket. But as Jenkins runs out, she lets out the fake sob of a spoiled brat, which undermines everything that went before. It's almost as if the company doesn't quite trust the material, and is trying to throw in random jokes wherever possible. But the material is good enough, and the adaptation smart enough, to stand on its own.

Action Theatre Company presents the world premiere adaptation, William Shakespeare's Speed Merchant (of Venice). Adapted by Tiger Reel and Jack Young. Directed by Tiger Reel. Assistant Director Tom Metcalf; Costume Designer Vicki Conrad; Sound Design by Tiger Reel; Set Design by Tom Metcalf.

Cast:
Jack Young - Shylock
Vanessa Vaughn - Portia
Jon Weinberg - Antonio
Chris Triana - Salanio/Morocco
Nicolas Mongiardo-Cooper - Gratiano
Samantha Klein - Nerissa
Niki Jenkins - Salerio/Arragon
Ted Heyck - Judge/Lottery Assistant/Jailer
David Hardie - Bassanio
Raymond Donahey - Tubal/Lottery Assistant
A.J. Diamond - Launcelot Gobbo
Abbie Cobb - Jessica
Orestes Arcuni - Lorenzo

Speed Merchant (of Venice) is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and runs selected dates through June 23 at Artworks Theatre. For tickets, see hollywoodfringe.org/projects/915.


Tape

Tape

Wow, that was fun! Well, "fun" in the sense of watching a great little psychological drama well-played, not "fun" in the sense of a barrel of laughs. But Tape is a fine example of what a Fringe show ought to be—a well-acted, tautly-directed production which plumbs the depths of an interesting play.

Tape takes place in a motel room. Vince, a drug dealer (and occasional volunteer firefighter), has come to Lansing to support his high school buddy, Jon, a director who has a film in the Lansing Film Festival. At least, that's what Jon thinks; Vince has something else on his mind. As their conversation starts, it's clear that Jon is the more successful of the two. Vince's girlfriend has left him because he has "violent tendencies" and "unresolved issues," and Jon tries to convince Vince to grow up, get a real job, and get his act together. It looks like Jon (who has a room at the Radisson) is way ahead of Vince (Motel 6). But there's one thing that we know that Jon doesn't: we've seen Vince prepare for this meeting, and Vince is not nearly as drunk as the empty beer cans (and his breath) would lead Jon to believe. Vince definitely has an ace up his sleeve, and when he finally plays it, the power dynamic in the room completely changes.

Donald Rizzo gives Vince a just-slightly-off delivery. He makes Vince a touch slow, which fits in with his drinking and drug use. Vince has a near-permanent creepy smile which makes it easy to accept the aforementioned "violent tendencies" and "unresolved issues." Jason Karasev is Jon, the pretentious filmmaker on whom the tables are so completely turned. A lot of his performance is clear on his face, as Jon makes a rather difficult (and unanticipated) journey of self-discovery.

The third player in this game is Amy, who has been invited by Vince for reasons of which she, too, is unaware. As played by Juliana Long Tyson, Amy enters the scene carrying with her a core of normality which seems to be sorely lacking in the two men. But Stephen Belber's play has some surprises for her, and Tyson's Amy navigates them splendidly.

Tape is nominally a play about revisiting the past—about two people who have happily put an event of ten years ago behind them, and one who just can't let it go. It's also about how we lie to each other, and ourselves, and what facing the truth can do.

Identity Productions - Jason Karasev, Producer; Julianne Figueroa, Producer/Production Manager; Elisaa Weinzimmer, Producer - presents Tape by Stephen Belber. Directed by Elissa Weinzimmer. Fight Choreography by Joe Sofranko; Graphic Design by Ben Giroux; Production Photography by Dean Goodhill.

Cast:
Jon - Jason Karasev
Vince - Donald Rizzo
Amy - Juliana Long Tyson

Tape is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and runs selected dates through June 22 at Artworks Theatre. For tickets, see hollywoodfringe.org/projects/878


For more Hollywood Fringe reviews, see: www.ArtsBeatLA.com, www.ArtsInLA.com, and losangeles.bitter-lemons.com


- Sharon Perlmutter






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