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Arts and Entertainment

June In Hollywood Means It's Time For The Fringe Festival Again

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The annual Hollywood Fringe Festival is back for its eighth consecutive year, now with a whopping 375 shows running day and night in about 40 different Hollywood theater spaces. The quality and content of the productions vary wildly, but tickets (available online, at the festival's Fringe Central hub or at the door for each show) are cheap, most of the shows are short, 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. The festival runs until June 25, and a $5 Fringe Button gets you $1 off all tickets and other Fringe-related discounts. Here's what we thought of five shows we've seen so far (and check back tomorrow for five more reviews):

CHIMPSKIN

Fans of NPR's popular This American Life non-fiction storytelling program and its offshoot Radiolab may remember hearing the poignant segment about a chimpanzee named Lucy. The monkey was raised as a human child by a family in Oklahoma and then returned to the wild, where she adapted poorly to her new environs and was eventually killed by a poacher (whom she probably approached in a too-trusting spirit of friendly familiarity). A new Los Angeles theater company called the Puckwit Gang has produced a darkly dazzling adaptation of this tragic tale in a fantastic physical theater piece, Chimpskin, conceived and directed by Ben Landmesser.

Incorporating elements of dance and mime along with naturalistic dialogue, the young cast of Chimpskin create extraordinarily atmospheric settings throughout the production. Many of them alternate between human and chimpanzee roles, the latter distinguished by expressive, interpretive masks. In the central role of Lucy herself, Damla Coskun gives an unforgettable performance as a creature caught between two identities, possessing neither the full range of communicative tools available to humans nor the self-sustaining instincts of animals typically required to fend for themselves.

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Lucy must face the intricacies of living in the human world and then among fellow chimpanzees, and the people responsible for her well-being confront equally complex challenges. The Puckwit ensemble cast approaches these dynamics with a remarkable sensitivity, conveying the nuanced complication of Lucy's unique life trajectory. Landmesser's set and lighting design are tonally perfect throughout, and Nathan Nonhof's didgeridoo and gentle string accompaniments in moments of heightened tension are haunting.

Don't be put off by the silly-sounding title. This is one of the most theatrically profound shows we've ever seen at the Hollywood Fringe.

Chimpskin is playing at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Tickets $11.75 online, $10 on site.

MY JANIS

Arianna Veronesi may well have been born to play Janis Joplin, whom she does not merely imitate, but powerfully embodies in her self-directed one-woman show My Janis. Over the course of just 30 minutes, Veronesi, who even looks like the legendary '60s icon, depicts Joplin's transition from self-imposed clean-living isolation in her home town of Port Arthur, Texas, to debilitating musical stardom in San Francisco.

After desperately trying to resist a telephone invitation to drop her college studies and front the rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, Veronesi's Janis succumbs to the lure of a shot at artistic fulfillment. In a single onstage costume change, she abandons a life of conventional security and transforms into the devastatingly soulful singer of "Mercedes Benz" who would end up dying at age 27.

More a fragmentary performance piece than a fully integrated play, My Janis contains the raw material of a potentially high-voltage musical solo show, especially if Veronesi brings in a director to tighten up the dramatic pacing a bit. Even in its present incarnation, though, this one is worth seeing for Veronesi's emotionally revelatory portrayal of one of rock music's most emotionally revelatory voices.

My Janis is playing at the The New Collective. Tickets $11.75 online, $10 on site.

THE JOE & JOSHUA SHOW!

Emotional maturity might be overrated. Certainly Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Joshua Silverstein, or at least the stage personae they've adopted for their funny late-night Fringe production The Joe and Joshua Show!, are getting by just fine without it even in their early middle age.

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In a series of skillfully executed sketches and comedic rap numbers (some incorporating Joshua's mad beatbox skills), Joe and Joshua flaunt perspectives on romantic relationships and social consciousness that we'd expect to hear from men half their current ages (43 and 36, respectively). They're hot for divorced moms, whom they fetishize as oversexed partners who aren't seeking to have kids. Joe eschews the stultifying responsibility of a stable career (even though, as he informs us a couple times, he went to Princeton), and Joshua laments with mounting agitation over the emotional satisfaction that having a committed spouse has brought him. They're nonplussed by similarities among women's online dating profiles ("When did you all go to Machu Picchu?"). In one extended exchange Joe tries unsuccessfully to get Joshua, who is black, to sanction his use of the "n word" in controlled situations (ironically, this show premiered the same night that Bill Maher provoked national outrage for exactly that misguided verbal indiscretion).

Presumably plenty of this material is presented tongue in cheek. Toward the end of the show, Joe and Joshua offer a granularly itemized list of apologies to the women and friends they've mistreated over the course of their adolescent and prolonged post-adolescent lives. They even give the victims of their insensitivities pseudonyms like "lawn chair" to protect their identities. The end of the show also includes a series of life lessons twisted out of context from watching movies.

Under Rebecca Larsen's snappy direction, these two J-dude characters are always charismatic in their self-absorption--a self-absorption that only starts to feel a little strange if you happen to think about it.

The Joe & Joshua Show! is playing in the the Sacred Fools Theater Studio. Tickets $13.75 online, $12 on site.

DEAD AIR

First-time authors Heather Simmons and Brian Cole have written an one-act play about a near-future environmental calamity in which the earth runs out of breathable air. Jonathan Nation delivers a strong, moving performance as the scion of a wealthy industrialist family who has voluntarily taken to living in tattered clothing on the streets, using paper bags and tire pumps to hoard oxygen for storage in the sealed tent where he plans to avoid perishing in the imminent apocalypse. An array of secondary characters don't add much to what could possibly be developed into an incisive single-person drama about a survivalist's canny madness.

Dead Air is playing in the Ruby Theatre space at The Complex Theatres. Tickets $13.75 online, $12 on site.

KOOKIE CLUBHOUSE KINGDOM

As Joe and Joshua's show is appropriately slated into late-night time slots, writer-director Mike Hennessey's colorfully antic kids' show Kookie Clubhouse Kingdom gets the Saturday and Sunday morning shift throughout the Fringe. A veteran producer of birthday party entertainments, Hennessey, along with co-songwriter Laurie Grant, has updated an original musical he debuted back in the '90s for single digit-aged theatergoers and their sympathizers. The whole production is probably wacky enough to appeal to the early bird stoner set, too.

Kookie Clubhouse Kingdom is playing in the Asylum @ Studio C space. Tickets $16.75 online, $15 on site.