The Hollywood Fringe Festival is a place where veteran performers and creators can stretch their wings and try things outside their comfort zones. It is also a place where newcomers can dip their toes into the enormously deep pool that is the Los Angeles theater scene. Some shows rise above the rest, while others fall flat. Unfortunately, newcomer Ashlynn Judy’s Hell’s Finest falls into the latter category.
Billed as an immersive production but really a proscenium play that breaks the fourth wall a few times, Hell’s Finest invites the audience to a meeting of The Covenant of the Ascendants of Abaddon, a (fictional) cult run by charismatic Adam (played by Sean Little). Guests are given nametags that assign them to a rank within the cult and a brochure about the cult and its upcoming events. While it might have been fun to play off the ranks (and their duties) or refer to the brochure’s contents during the show, ultimately they are just background material. Tonight’s meeting is particularly important: We will be finding someone to replace Adam as leader of The Covenant as he takes on…more ethereal duties. The time has come for him to ascend and live side-by-side with Abaddon. But the cult’s earthly chapter will still need leadership. Adam has chosen three of the vilest contenders for our judgement: a drug dealer (Malcolm Wise), an overly handsy gynecologist (Christian Longoria), and a suicide instigator (Melissa Cindric).
With the intriguing premise, not a lot is needed in terms of set or production design (there are some nicely morbid props utilized), but the characters should be interesting enough to carry the 45-minute production. And there are scenes where we got to see the actors (and their characters) come alive: when they are engaged in heated debates or interrogations, physically fighting each other, or when Adam or his sidekick Samuel (played by Marcus Cannello) turn their attention to the audience. However, these moments are too few and far between. The script consists of mostly monologues, with each character describing incidents that make them such horrible people. It is unclear if the audience is supposed to root for any of them, or just worry for the future of the cult given our options. With a bit more stage direction or banter to break things up, this might have worked better. And to be fair, the actors, mostly newbies themselves, do what they can with the script. But they often trip up on the wordiness and struggle to reach emotional peaks and valleys to keep things interesting. At times even the actors seem bored with what is happening on stage – save for Melissa Cindric, who puts her all into energizing the proceedings with an almost rabid mania that only makes the others’ lack of presence all the more apparent.
Hell’s Finest could definitely benefit from more physicality. While the three contenders are fixed to their respective chairs, Adam is left to aimlessly wander the stage and audience, with no real authoritative presence. The physicality that does make it into the show is welcome and well-done – both the fight choreography and one actor’s stand-out moment – albeit a little too late in the proceedings to garner much investment. That being said, Marcus Cannello (as Samuel) deserves credit for being the most nuanced of the cast; without saying a word, he both elicits laughs and creeps the audience out.
As for the narrative itself, Hell’s Finest jumps genres and could use a bit more focus. If it were to go in the immersive direction, maybe some call-and-response, or at least acknowledgment to the audience’s nametags, could help break up the monologue-heavy flow. Additionally, it might have been nice for the audience to have a say in the winner of the competition, since we will be led by the champion – maybe through gameshow-style dynamics. On the other hand, if Hell’s Finest remains a more sedentary play, the characters (and actors) need more interaction with each other, and more movement overall.
I’m not one to shy away from twisted thematic material, and I’ve visited Hell on more than one occasion, but Hell’s Finest needs a lot of work to live up to its interesting concept. There is a lot of potential in a theatrical (or immersive) piece about contenders vying for leadership of a cult that worships a vengeful god; Hell’s Finest just needs more fine-tuning and energy to get there.
Find out more information on Hell’s Finest and buy tickets here. Keep up to date with all of our Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019 coverage here. Follow our Event Guide for more news and reviews throughout the year.
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