Does LA Need a Fringe?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

On Sunday, the third annual Hollywood Fringe Festival came to a close. Performers from across the city and, to some extent, across the globe descended on a square mile of Hollywood to put on over 180 shows. Attendance was up. The nonprofit that runs it is still alive. People saw more theater. These should all be reasons to celebrate LA theater, right?

So why can't I get past the question: does LA really need a fringe festival in the first place?

So here's the first problem with LA's Fringe. What is it a 'fringe' to? Our major regional theaters? The Geffen, the Taper, Pasadena Playhouse? Or to the international and national offerings at RedCat and the newly reborn UCLA program? Or is this a fringe to LA's vibrant 99-seat theaters?

The trouble is the answer to all of these seems to be: yes.

Now that's no surprise when it comes to the bigger institutions. What's shocking is that the festival feels like an outsider even to the 99-seat scene, which is itself a sort of year round fringe festival with the wealth of theater companies and spaces that call LA home.

Now, I love the idea behind a non-curated, open to all festival. I wish I could quote Steven Leigh Morris of the LA Weekly on the radio who wrote basically, 'you have to be a jerk not to love the fringe festival,' but in more colorful terms.

At the risk of being that jerk - I love the festival but does LA need more opportunities to make theater? Or does it need more opportunities to make theater with a bigger impact?

Sitting at the Artworks Theatre for Ravi Kapoor's fringe take on “Oedipus”, the play feels like the exception that proves the rule.

Here was a show that epitomizes a fringe aesthetic: three actors, a trunk, and a screen to change behind. What could be simpler? In poor theater fashion, Mr Kapoor wrote the text, directed, and acts in this Oedipal drama performed by three soldiers in an Italian prison camp during World War II.

The prisoners: a Brit, an American, and an Indian have been charged by the commandant with putting on a play. So the Brit, a Ricky Gervais-esque bufoon, has selected the classic text. The result is one part Hogan's Heroes, one part madcap-cross-dressing-street-theater - all passed through Mr. Kapoor's wise political filter that recognizes: one man's liberator is another man's occupier.'

The play is a wonderfully messy, funny, romp.

But here's the trouble: it performed three times and it's gone - just like the rest of the festival.

Now I love the ephemeral nature of the theater as much as the next guy but shouldn't there be something more?

I guess my frustration isn't with the Fringe Festival, it's with how fragmented LA's theater ecosystem is. Why can't a city with this much theater figure out how to be a theater city?

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Russell Milton, Milan Chandna and Norman Scott in O!edipus