Hollywood Fringe Festival: Gravity and Frivolity in One Night

Travis Holder (left) and the cast of the play.

Travis Holder (left) and the cast of the play.

Last night I attended the previews of two plays in this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, The Katrina Comedy Fest and #Hashtag. They couldn’t have been more different, which is what is so fun about a fringe festival: you never know what you’re going to get—just like Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates.

Like most Americans, I have vivid memories of the chaos, negligence and nightmare that was Katrina, which I wrote about in the article "The Katrina Disposables: Wading the Waters." My piece was similar to many accounts of the disaster as it focused on the neglect of the city and its citizens in the wake of the storm, but playwright Rob Florence enlarges on the view from the ground. His play offers an inspiring portrait of a community that came together to weather the storm with grace and laughter.

To write The Katrina Comedy Fest, Florence wove real-life survivor accounts, a feat that I as a nonfiction writer applaud. When you’re working with true stories, the job of assembling the facts into one coherent, linear story is challenging. Florence accomplishes this with not one, but five individuals, creating a pastiche of characters whose combined experience pays homage to America’s most colorful, benevolent and often ignored city, New Orleans.

The Katrina Comedy Fest opens presumably at the renown Mother-in-Law Lounge where the characters take up their individual space on the stage to recount the events as they occurred from the moment the storm hit, to the breaching of the levees to their respective displacement from New Orleans. One character unfolds his experience drawing the audience into his journey just enough before another character imparts his, an intermingling that works efficiently in terms of the play’s narrative, but fails to establish a sense of setting. The play seems to want to ground the characters at the Lounge, yet each individual’s story simultaneously takes the audience (without the other characters) to various locales across the country.

Travis Holder as "Rodney"

Travis Holder as "Rodney"

The centering character, Antoinette, who owns the Mother-in-Law Lounge, seems the obvious choice for coherence. Last night, actress Peggy Blow playing Antoinette, vacillated between interacting with the characters on stage as if they were in her club in the present to speaking to the audience, relocated us to her whereabouts during the actual chaos of Katrina. Although this is a minor hitch that will be resolved during the run of the play, the character Rodney, played by Travis Holder, held this viewer steady throughout. Holder’s pitch-perfect performance from the use of his ever-present alcoholic refreshment to his frustration with being cooped up with his parents created a vivid sense of place wherever he took us on his journey. Rodney embodied the soul of the New Orleans citizen, loyal to a fault. When asked why he would want to return, his response, which becomes a refrain at the play’s end is delivered with an exquisite mixture of pathos and pride: “Because I am home sick and my home is sick.”

After the recent events of hurricane Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma, theatre-goers may rest assured that although the nature of the <em>The Katrina Comedy Fest</em> may connote visions of death and anger, it is just the opposite. You’ll come out of the theatre with a smile on your face from the demonstration of resiliency that each of the characters, in their unique quirkiness, impart with a levity of spirit and honesty of the soul.

“#Hashtag” begins with a pre-curtain announcement that the audience should not turn off their phones, encouraging us to “live tweet” the characters on stage. I activated Instagram to take a picture to post to Facebook and Twitter, but I didn’t get a response from the characters on stage.

“#Hashtag” tells the story of Kit, played by Spencer Howard, a present day 20-something Angelino suffering from the angst of self-centeredness. He places his dream of becoming an actor before his relationships. By the play’s end he has lost his girlfriend, turned his back on his brother and neglected the one friend who seems to really care about him, but he does land a role in a pilot. It’s a classic story of a hero’s tragic flaw bringing about his own demise, but “#Hashtag” is anything but a tragedy. With it’s over the top choreography and bursts into song, at best it could be described as a farce. To this viewer it resembled a sit-com, which appropriately reflects Kit’s rise to mediocrity.

Littered with allusions to present day life in Los Angeles, the play will delight 20-somethings following their dreams who don’t take themselves too seriously – a trait the play phones home is rare in tinsel town. The technology aspect of the play wherein characters are perpetually dialed into their Smart phones (at curtain call they actually hold up their hand to delay the audience from applauding in order to check their cells) cleverly coheres the theme of alienation.

Along with the very meta trope of having the audience participate in a social media orgy, references in the play add to the the reflective nature of the play. At one point Kit, on a blind internet date, tells the girl he had performed in the Hollywood Fringe Festival the previous year. Admittedly, the ensemble delivered solid performances, but unlike “The Katrina Comedy Fest,” I doubt “#Hashtag” would resonate with audiences other than Hollywood Fringe attendees. —June 17, 2013