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6 Weird, Wonderful And Terrible Shows We've Seen At The Hollywood Fringe Fest

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The annual Hollywood Fringe Festival is back in its fourth edition with around 200 shows running day and night in over 20 theater venues, all in one neighborhood, through the end of the month. The quality and content of the productions vary wildly, but tickets are cheap and it's fun to take your chances, throw caution to the wind and just go see whatever's playing at any given moment. That's how we do it, anyway. (A $5 Fringe Festival button, by the way, gets you a $1 discount on all show tickets plus some cheaper drinks and other benefits.) Here's how we liked the six randomly selected shows we've made it to so far (we'll keep reporting back as we see more), listed in roughly descending order of recommendation.

THE POKÉMUSICAL at Theatre Asylum

Didn't see this one coming at all. Really, if anything else had been playing late Monday night, we would have gone to that other show instead. To be honest, we were kind of dreading the prospect of sitting through a 90-minute production based on the Pokémon franchise, which we went in knowing absolutely nothing about (it's a video game and a collectible toy set, is that right? Or a TV cartoon show? We still don't even know). Characters and thematic icons like Jigglypuff, Ratatta, badges, Poké balls—it all might as well be "Finnegan's Wake" to us.

But damn! if The Pokémusical isn't one smart, funny, dynamically performed original musical comedy revue. And while many in the first-night audience no doubt benefited from a familiarity with the defined fantasy universe the show satirizes, we never felt like we were missing out on anything. The show's antic spirit is infectious, the laughs are genuine, and a few of the musical numbers are truly memorable.

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Written by Alex Syiek, with music by Andrew L. Cooper, The Pokémusical follows 10-year-old Ash (Seth Salsbury), accompanied by friends Misty (Heather Ensley) and Brock (Richie Ferris) along with the little Pokémon figure Pikachu (Kelsey Schulte), on an odyssey through the land of Kanto as Ash seeks to be the best Pokémon player there is. Along the way, his quest is threatened by, among others, the hilariously evil Team Rocket duo of Jessie (Jamie Mills) and James (Peyton Crim), Ash's arch-nemesis Pokémon player Gary (Tyler Ledon)--and Ash himself.

There's a lot of fun stuff going on here, all of it effectively harnessed by director Joanna Syiek. When no one else is looking, the simple-minded Pikachu turns out to be a sophisticated observer of the proceedings in a series of extended monologues addressed to the audience. The whole cast suspends the proceedings for a few minutes to sing a stirring, ridiculous, musically complex canon in tribute to a prominent Pokémon character otherwise left out of the show. Gary's solo torch song "Evolution" is good enough to serve as a standard musical theater audition piece. The dialogue throughout is sharp and well-paced, and the performances are delivered with considerable brio, but, thankfully, never go over the top. It's all enough to give hijinx a good name.

Both a celebration and a send-up of the Pokémon franchise, The Pokémusical seems an unlikely candidate for a long commercial life in the great big musical theater world out there (we don't even want to ask if they got any kind of legal clearance to present this adaptation). But that's part of what makes it such perfect Fringe fare: a spirited collective enterprise put together with great skill and obvious devotion for just a handful of small-venue performances over the course of a couple weeks. This is The Pokémusical's time and place, and The Pokémusical (of all things) just might be the show we end up remembering the 2013 Fringe Festival by.

The Pokémusical plays again tomorrow night at 11:30 p.m. and then six more times through June 28. Tickets $11.75 online.

CLEANER THAN BLOOD at the Lounge Theatre

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Jen Silverman's gripping, high-tension one-act play starts out with small-time criminal types Paul (Austin Iredale) and Jeffrey (Kjai Block) hiding out in the wine cellar of an unoccupied east coast summer house as they plan their next moves. When a young woman by the name of Marr (Maggie Blake) surprises them by walking in and announcing that the place belongs to her uncle, who is expected to return the next day from an extended absence, the men take her hostage. Then, over the course of the evening, we slowly learn that none of these three desperadoes is at all who they say they are.

Even as these revelations reorient our understanding of the identities and relations at play among the trio, director Alexander Thomas Scott nicely allows the critical points to emerge not as jolting events that suddenly upend the whole world of the play as we've known it, but almost as normal turns of conversation. And as the consequences of staying where they are keep getting raised for their characters, all three actors, too, let events take their course without excessively manifesting the fear and emotional turmoil that implicitly mount with every line and passing moment.

For our money, the play's climactic dénouement is not quite as compelling as the preceding hour of uncertainty that builds up to it, but that barely even matters. As a study of three people inadvertently united to reconcile a past they'd rather not have to share, Cleaner Than Blood is a suspenseful drama that plays around with your expectations and never stops moving forward.

Cleaner Than Blood plays tomorrow night at 10 and then six more times through June 29. Tickets $13.75 online.

THE FIRE ROOM at the Actors Studio

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In Meghan Brown's poignant one-act play, a love quadrangle plays itself out in a region of the world to come that we are told looks disappointingly like Van Nuys. Meredith (Mercedes Manning) and J.W. (Jason Vande Brake) are ghosts of people who'd spent their time on earth more than a century apart, but meet and fall in love in the afterlife and prepare to spend eternity together. The uniting of their souls is threatened, though, by the arrival of Meredith's earthly boyfriend Charlie (Jim Senti), who worms his way back into her affections even though he's never really been good for her on either the temporal or the ethereal plane of being. J.W. meanwhile is pursued by the spirit of good-time girl Eunice (Sage Howard). Fortunately there's an angelic administrator (Rachel Grate) on hand to set things right.

Under Amanda McRaven's expansive direction, aided substantially by Jeanine Nicholas's clever stage design, The Fire Room transports us to a fully realized place where people struggle to cast off the emotional detritus of their human lives and move forward into eternity. The whole thing could have come across as kind of silly, but the actors do a good job psychologically grounding their portrayals of souls who are still striving and aspiring to love, even after death. This result is a production of great integrity and atmospheric strength.

The Fire Room plays Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and then four more times through June 29. Tickets $13.75 online.

THE MISS JULIE DREAM PROJECT at The Three Clubs

The Fell Swoop playwrights collective's riff on the modern implications of the 19th-century Strindberg classic Miss Julie contains a lot of fascinating ideas and an ingenious central narrative device: the original Julie character herself (Élan O'Connor) resists cooperating with the actress (Alison Plott) preparing to play her in a new production. In the original play, after all, Julie gets seduced, discarded and sent off to kill herself with a straight-razor. And who wants to keep going through that again and again, in one production after another, even if they are a fictional character? At the same time, if you're an actress, the last thing you need is a character telling you she's just not going to go through with it all this time.

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Apparently The Miss Julie Dream Project is a collaborative creation by no fewer than nine different playwrights, although Kyle T. Wilson is credited as the "primary writer." So this backstage comedy about a modern production of Miss Julie and Julie's own attempted interference with its execution, only one hour long, is the product of nine distinct authorial sensibilities. And the project really is as jumbled and disjointed as it sounds like it might be. The play starts out promisingly and actually reaches its conclusion quite movingly. But all the wan comic material piled up indiscriminately in between is enough to give hijinx a bad name.

I could certainly imagine being interested to see the essential kernel of The Miss Julie Dream Project's story conceit re-developed into a coherent whole. But the all-hands-on-deck approach to play-making, at least in this instance, turns out to be distinctly less madcap than it is just maddening.
The Miss Julie Project plays tomorrow evening at 7:45 and then four more times through June 26. Tickets $13.75 online.

LUNA NOCTILUCA at the Actors Studio

An ensemble of roughly college-age actors performs an intriguing mash-up and adaptation of Oscar Wilde's and Charles Mee's very different "Salome" plays, with a couple verses of "Call Me Maybe" on acoustic guitar thrown in because why not, after all, it's the Fringe. Director Brooke Silva's idea to intertwine these two versions of the ancient erotic cautionary tale—one a dramatic play, one an extended monologue—is really a very smart one and could have proven revelatory with a cast better able to spin out a taut, emotionally-modulated story arc. As it is, though, one or two decent performances aren't enough to salvage what comes across as little more than an ambitious first-year MFA class project. Credit where it's due: the costumes here designed by Kelby LeNorman and Sharon Miller are really very imaginative and impressive—and not just by thrown-together Fringe Festival production standards.

Luna Noctiluca plays tomorrow night at 8:30 and then three more times through June 29. Tickets $11.75 online.

SPIN PROCTORS at The Complex

An hour of sketch comedy with six energetic performers, but meager material. Ken and Barbie dolls want to have a baby together, but have never heard about sex. Monday Night Football announcers deliver play-by-play analysis of pickup moves at a bar. Married couple's relationship advice TV show devolves into back-and-forth sniping and recrimination. Send-up of an over-the-top pompous acting class teacher. That kind of thing. One scene reminiscent of Eddie Murphy's old SNL Velvet Jones mock self-help book commercials is kind of funny. Otherwise....

Spin Proctors plays again Saturday night at 11. Tickets $11.75 online.