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Four More Shows We Caught at this Year's Hollywood Fringe Fest

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A warmly anticipated L.A. theater event since its inception in 2010, the annual Hollywood Fringe Festival is back up and in full swing with almost 275 shows running day and night in over 30 venues, most within walking distance of one another. Everything from big-cast musicals to solo performances, full-length plays with intermissions to half-hour quickies, risqué raunch to family fare, high-tech productions to a "two planks and a passion" DIY approach finds its way into the mix. Some of the offerings are great, some instantly forgettable. But tickets are cheap and it's fun to just take a chance on whatever sounds like it might be good. Last week we took a look at four shows we caught during previews. Here's a rundown of four more we saw the following weekend:

THE POE SHOW

What if that dourest of American literary icons Edgar Allan Poe (Brendan Hunt) had his own late night talk/variety show, complete with opening monologue, comedic bits, celebrity guests (including George Custer, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain) with clips promoting their latest projects, and even commercial breaks? That's the wacky premise of Ed Goodman's "The Poe Show," which originated as a recurring weekly feature of the Sacred Fools theater company's own Friday late night Serial Killers program and is now making its first appearance at the Fringe Festival.

The juxtaposition between Poe's characteristic gloom, as when he muses on those "who constantly confound the cure with the disease," and the kind of glib "Gun control is in the news..."-style patter that Johnny Carson and his progeny added to the popular lexicon, is funny at first. Before long, though, all but the trappings of the dark Poe mystique are dropped and it's nothing but lukewarm jokes, including a "Top 13" list, the rest of the way.

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Near the top of the show, to be sure, Poe himself warns us, "If juvenile puns aren't your thing, you'll be in for a long night." Some in the audience seemed to be laughing the whole 50 minutes. For us, the charm lasted only about 10.

"The Poe Show" at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., through June 27

MAY 39TH

Callie Kimball's one-act play is something of a "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" set 1,000 years in the future. It's the morning after Sam (Michael Hyland) and Louisa (Tracy Eliott) have just hooked up. She's ready for Sam to leave now so she can get on with her day and her life, but he wants to think seriously about a long-term future for them together.

Though we never get all the details, there's something definitively 1984ish about the future society where these two reside, as even sexual coupling without an officially issued "purple exemption" violates state regulations. Louisa, we also learn, is genetically immune to any feelings of pain.

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Sam initially seems like an amiably over-earnest hipster type before emerging, in Hyland's well-modulated characterization, as someone far creepier. Projecting both strength and vulnerability, a defensive reserve and an eagerness for connection, Eliott's wonderfully brave performance as Louisa is a 40-minute tour de force.

A surprise plot twist toward the end of the play recontextualizes their relationship without undermining the accumulated emotional charge of Louisa's apprehensive submission to her suppressed desires at Sam's forceful behest.

Directed by Richard Tatum, this "May 39th" is a production of L.A.'s own Absolute Theatre company.

"May 39th" at Theatre Asylum Lab, 1078 Lillian Way, through June 28

BYE-BYE
We'd never heard anything of the shameful history surrounding the now-closed Byberry state psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia before we saw Kealy DeWitt's play "Bye-Bye" at the Fringe. But now we can't get it out of our heads. Nine actors introduce us to over 35 characters in a stream of short vignettes that hearken back to the period between 1900 and 1990, when scores of patients in Byberry's charge were neglected, abused and even killed. A program note asserts that the play is "based on historical fact," with some dialogue and characters drawn from formal records and others "created through dramatic imagination."

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Corrupt politicians, sadistic orderlies, and an uncaring public are all shown contributing in turn to the perpetuation of this institutional torture chamber, where some patients are said to have remained in straitjackets for 23 years and an indifferent evacuation left "aged and blind people" to "roast" when a fire broke out at the facility.

Despite its supremely grim subject matter, this production, nimbly directed by Robert OMeara, includes plenty of light-hearted, comic moments as we laugh at the incompetence of officials charged with operating the facility and the clever dignity of those patients who occasionally manage to frustrate and outsmart their tormentors. As one beleaguered medical administrator at the hospital observes of his staff, "It is they and not my patients who belong in restraints."

"Bye-Bye" at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., through June 21

FOUR CLOWNS PRESENTS THE HALFWITS' LAST HURRAHThe L.A.-based internationally touring Four Clowns theater and clown troupe brings a new production to almost every Hollywood Fringe Festival, and this year's entry, "The Halfwits' Last Hurrah," is a world premiere.

In this show about a show, the Four Clowns present a vaudevillian circus company fronted by shadily charismatic ringmaster Butterbeans Arbuckle (co-author Don Colliver), who announces that the performers we're about to see will take not only risks "but synonyms of risks and synonyms of those synonyms" of risks. Acts include a pair of lederhosen-and-dirndled twin brother and sister acrobats (Jennifer Carroll and Dave Honigman), ventriloquist Pruella Tickledick (Charlotte Chanler) and her dummy Shoe, a burlesque blonde who works under the name Burlesque Blonde (Jamie Franta, the other co-author) and exotic stiltwalker Madame La Merde (Hélène Udy). Most of these are fun, and the ensemble song and dance numbers provide a nice kick, but the show's high point has to be Butterbeans's knife-throwing routine with his sidekick Nimrod (Elizabeth Godley).

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There's a plot here, too, involving a rival syndicate, led by The Real McCoy (Jolene Kim) and her two henchmen (Tyler Brenner and Jamarr Love), which is hell-bent on stopping the show by sabotaging the acts and kidnapping the performers. This forced conflict, though, is less compelling than the array of simple crowd-pleasing moments that Butterbeans and company deliver.

"Four Clowns Presents The Halfwits' Last Hurrah" at Theatre Asylum / Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, through June 26