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Review: Fringe plays offer the good, the so-so and the frankly puzzling

Las Vegas Little Theatre opened its fourth annual Fringe Festival last weekend, with the city’s entire theater community converging in one space at one time. When not taking on their own roles, actors, directors and crews joined audiences for shows, giving the whole atmosphere a kind of anticipatory buzz. While I wish I could have seen them all, the three plays I saw on opening weekend offered an interesting cross section of genres — from seriously dramatic to mildly comical to absurdly experimental.

I approached Friday’s opening night performance of Olde English Productions’ The Exhibition, directed by Gus Langley and starring Shane Cullum and JJ Gatesman, with some anticipation, based on the success of Cullum’s one-man show, Iphigenia in Orem, last year, and last fall’s surprise hit Boom (both directed by Langley). While it wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I wasn’t disappointed.

Thomas Gibbon’s portrait of the relationship between two 19th-century Englishmen — one a severely deformed “elephant man,” the other a doctor who sets out to “rescue” him from a life of rejection and torment — poses deep, philosophical questions without bothering to provide pat answers. Rather, it lets the audience struggle with some tricky implications about human nature.

As Merrick, Cullum captures the character’s shuffle, his discomfort and the slurred language patterns caused by massive facial disfigurement. More importantly, he captures, all from behind a dingy mask, the man’s anguish and desire for connection.

As Dr. Treves, Gatesman is tasked with showing the torment the doctor suffered in his later years over whether or not his “rescue” served, in fact, as just another form of damage to Merrick.

The actors handle the challenges of the script’s lengthy monologues and conversations well, but I found myself wanting more dramatic power in the rare moments of actual engagement between the two. That said, much of the material, taken directly from the doctor’s notebooks, contains among the most profound reflections on humanity that you’re likely to hear, and Cullum’s Merrick will leave you haunted.

Next was Saturday’s opening of QuadraNine’s courtroom comedy, Candidate: Burton, directed by Amy Leigh and telling the story of a young and aimless guy who, after a pizza delivery turns tragic, finds himself in a sort of overly playful purgatory.

While the question at the core of the play — how do we measure the value of one’s life? — is deep, its delivery is anything but.

Michael Drake’s comical overplaying of the lead role doesn’t do the play or himself any big favors (in the end we don’t really care what happens to him), but Adam Harrell’s script doesn’t offer the actor much of an alternative, filled as it is with lazy courtroom clichés. Are we really still laughing at not one, but repeated O.J. jokes?

It’s basically an hour of slap-sticky laughs, with Kim Glover playing the likable, gum-smacking ’60s secretary overseeing the clownish court procedures, and Brandon McClenahan scoring easy laughs as the one-joke, slick-haired prosecuting attorney squaring off against Burton’s Paleolithic defense attorney, played by John C. Hughes. Silly time-travel special effects, while sporadic, score some giggles, but the play itself seemed troubled before it even hit the stage.

After a short delay due to minor technical issues, Kris Saknussemm’s The Humble Assessment premiered Saturday evening. In a perfect world, Porcelain Bomb Productions’ offbeat play would have been perfect Fringe fodder: risky, experimental theater filled with head-scratching moments — of which this promising play had many, but maybe not all in a good way.

Story: Man enters sparse room to interview for a controller’s position at a nameless company. Why he arrives for a job interview carrying a rose bouquet is puzzling, but not the least of the many unexplained puzzles to follow.

He is greeted by a glaring spotlight in his face — a fine metaphor for the humbling interview process — and proceeds to take a seat for what becomes an increasingly bizarre journey into psychological torment. In phase one, Humble (Mark Brunton) interacts with a pair of projected lips (belonging to Erica Griffin), whose provocative interview questions are anything but orthodox.

Brunton handles the timing of this technical trickery, which occurs in a couple of scenes, without falling behind, but falls short of humanizing himself in the process, limiting his role to one of merely reacting, making it more or less impossible to really care about his outcome.

Why Humble sticks around through the abusive interview becomes less a question than, say, why he’s putting on handcuffs and/or trying to sit in a weird high chair contraption (spoiler: answers aren’t forthcoming).

In the end, despite a clever but way-too-warp-speed pay-off and some entertaining moments (a scene featuring Applicant No. 4, in particular), I have to wonder if this play wouldn’t have worked better as a short story. Still, its ideas about corporate culture, and its surprising use of props and technology are likely to linger, so it succeeded on some levels. The mostly quiet audience seemed more or less baffled at the whole thing.

THE EXHIBITION: Friday, June 7, 6 p.m.; Sat, June 8, 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 9, 2 p.m.; Fischer Black Box. CANDIDATE: BURTON: Thursday, June 6, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 8, 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 9, 12:15 p.m.; Mainstage. THE HUMBLE ASSESSMENT: Friday, June 7, 6 p.m.; Saturday, June 8, 7:45 p.m.; Sunday, June 9, 6:30 p.m.; Mainstage. Las Vegas Little Theatre, 3920 Schiff Drive. Tickets: $12 per play; $120 for festival pass; $66 for six-play half pass. More info: www.lvlt.org/Fringe2013.htm.