Hollywood Fringe 2019
A send-up of Hollywood solo shows, Blackboxing is a hilarious hour of metatheater that keeps the audience in stitches and surprises with a healthy dose of emotional reality.
Odds are if you’re reading reviews here, you’ve seen a solo show or two in your time. And odds are that at least one of these shows… was not great. Veterans of Fringe are well-versed in the pitfalls of the eager newbie’s earnest attempt at creative expression: while these can be cringe-inducing trials that stretch the audience to the breaking point of their tolerance, they can also be really fun to make fun of.
Enter Blackboxing, a deftly executed parody of a Fringe show that, even though this is an entirely new piece, we’ve all seen it before. Created by Matt Ritchey, a Hollywood Fringe veteran who’s amassed a wealth of horror stories from years as a writer/director/producer, Blackboxing follows the mounting of the jejune Travis Acedia’s original piece, “Cry for Help.” Along with Jim, the world-weary stage manager, we watch Travis fumble comically through a disastrous tech to the inevitable train wreck of a show. Jim speaks for us, attempting to steer Travis clear of familiar solo show clichés (i.e. everyone tells their “coming to LA” story; puppets are a terrible idea) and frequently stands in the way of Travis’ vision (if only by virtue of not wanting to be sued for violating copyright or have the theater burn down.)
The show’s a delightful catharsis for Fringers, ripe with inside jokes from the horrors of parking near the Complex or the faux pas of offering an indecipherable handwritten script to your techie. I’d imagine it’s even more gratifying for stage managers who see it, since they’re finally getting credit for the insane work of Fringe, juggling scores of shows from predominantly green producers. But as much as Blackboxing is a metatheatrical parody aimed at its theater-making cohorts, it’s not necessary to have made or even seen a Fringe show to appreciate its heart and humor. Ritchey is completely invested in his character, and goes all out in performing over-the-top interpretive dance, original (terrible) songs, and enacting multiple characters from a radio play. His sense of timing is impeccable—he knows exactly how long to allow for audience reaction for his many “groaner” lines—and he’s remarkably good with dialects (it’s Travis’ one actual talent, apparently.) The show is well-balanced, keeping the sections of crap performance broken up with stage manager bickering, with the exception of perhaps one song or bit that could be trimmed just a touch. This keeps the audience laughing, rather than having the show become an actual chore to watch– even if we’re making fun of it, no one really wants to see “Cry for Help” in its entirety.
While the show is mostly centered on parodying shoddy work mounted in LA’s 50-seat theaters, it does still recognize the validity of good intentions. Simply mocking an artist’s failed attempt would be cruel, and Blackboxing does not make this mistake. Yes, Travis is a buffoon. He spouts all the actory nonsense you hear daily in Hollywood and, as evidenced by his program, can’t even be bothered to use spellcheck. But he’s still a human being and is driven to create his show—however awful—by a real human impulse. Though thoroughly shrouded in jokes and parody, an empathic core for Travis—and every artist— takes Blackboxing from being a simple satire and grounds it in compassion. It’s a lesson we could all stand to revisit today: even if someone comes off as kind of an asshole, even if we think they’re spouting nonsense, they’re still a person with feelings, dreams, passions and unseen suffering like all of us. Everyone deserves a chance at happiness, even Travis. We just hope perhaps next time he’ll find a decent director.