The 99-Seat Beat: Come in. Aleichem and Churchill are waiting
Your attention probably has turned to the almost-summer outdoors, but L.A. theater is doing its best to get you off of the sand and into a seat. Consider: the Hollywood Fringe Festival at full tilt; a particularly macabre “Frankenstein”; adventures with Sholom Aleichem or Alice in Wonderland; or a sit-down with Winston Churchill and Edward R. Murrow.
Hollywood Fringe Festival
The essentials: You might have noticed the explosion of activity in the center of the city. That’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival, an annual pile-on of plays, one-person shows, cabaret-variety acts and more that shares the come-one, come-all spirit of fringe festivals worldwide.
Why this? Dozens upon dozens of performers sign up to be part of this event, which means the array of topics and performance styles can be dizzying. You can experience the ancient play “Medea” in butoh-dance form; plunge into the early works of artist Chris Burden; rock out with the Manson women; zip through time to prevent climate collapse; pass through a near-death experience; or learn what it’s like to grow up in an ashram-like spiritual community or to be black in an overwhelmingly white small Kansas town. Plus, there are multitudinous explorations of relationships, grief, crime statistics, politics or, well, you name it. The event is not curated, so for quality assessments, you might want to check the viewer comments at hollywoodfringe.org/reviews.
‘Frankenstein’ by Zombie Joe’s Underground
The essentials: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 tale of human overreach, untamed yearning and all manner of unintended consequences gets transformed into a horror-theater experience.
Why this? The theater collective known as Zombie Joe’s Underground plunges audiences into full-on worlds where scares keep your nerve endings and brain cells in a heightened state of awareness. The group’s leader, who truly goes by the name Zombie Joe, describes the style as “highly physical and energy-based performance,” which the audience experiences “almost like a ride.” Meaning: Don’t expect to merely sit around and watch, and don’t expect a strictly linear experience. Under Zombie Joe’s direction, “Frankenstein” delves into Shelley’s 200-year-old story and its resilience in popular culture, including the James Whale films for Universal. Man playing God, a piecemeal state of being, the horror of being labeled a “monster” when all one wants is love and acceptance — “we find these themes really current,” Zombie Joe says. The presentation, for ages 15 and up, is experienced in groups of about 25.
Details: ZJU Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Opens this weekend. 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; ends June 30. $15. (818) 202-4120, zombiejoes.com
Busy Santa Monica Playhouse
The essentials: “Eclectic” barely begins to describe the programming at Santa Monica Playhouse, where this month’s lineup includes a new installment in the theater’s folksy depictions of Yiddish humorist Aleichem and an LBGTQ pride-month iteration of a show that sends an adult Alice back to Wonderland.
Why this? The playhouse is like a family living room where plays happen to be produced. “Aleichem Sholom!” and “Alice and the Fabulous Tea Party” are iterations of shows long enjoyed there, the former introduced in 1976, the latter in 1989. The Aleichem piece is the fifth inspired by the author’s letters, anecdotes and life experiences. Playhouse Co-Artistic Director Chris DeCarlo portrays the author as he makes a reading tour of Eastern Europe in 1913-14, with stories coming alive with assistance from spouse and fellow Artistic Director Evelyn Rudie. Alice’s return to Wonderland — where she gets dispatched on an emergency search for tea-party refreshments — is an LGBTQ-pride edition that puts a more adult spin on the punning wordplay and is performed by an all-male cast that rocks its frocks. The shows, both musicals, are written by DeCarlo and Rudie.
Details: Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St. “Aleichem Sholom!” is performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 3:30 p.m. Sundays through June 24; “Alice” is at 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through June 30. Admission is $27-$35 for the former, $20 for the latter. (310) 394-9779, santamonicaplayhouse.com
‘Their Finest Hour’ by Write Act
The essentials: American news reports from London early in World War II became particularly vivid once newsman Edward R. Murrow gained the trust of Winston Churchill. The British prime minister had a plan, of course. If the Blitz were transmitted to U.S. living rooms via CBS radio, he hoped, public sentiment would sway toward joining the war. The relationship turned into a rich friendship.
Why this? Murrow said of Churchill: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended” — which reminds us how skilled Murrow also was at mobilizing language. The new play “Their Finest Hour: Churchill and Murrow” is by prolific Los Angeles playwright, journalist and novelist Willard Manus, who often finds inspiration in biography. For spice, there’s Murrow’s affair with Churchill’s daughter-in-law, later known as Pamela Harriman, Democratic fundraiser and President Clinton’s ambassador to France. Manus’ plays have pride of place at North Hollywood’s Write Act Repertory, which presented a piece about Mae West this winter and is showing one about jazz saxophonist Lester Young.
Details: Write Act Repertory at the Brickhouse Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood. Opens Saturday. 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends July 22. $20. brownpapertickets.com/event/3328722
The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Some (but not all) recommendations are shows we’ve seen; other picks are based on the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast. Comprehensive theater listings are posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.
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