Making its world premiere at this year’s Fringe is multi-hyphenate Blake Shield’s The Arsonist of Venice, a two-act drama. The story concerns a celebrated novelist and hero of the activist left in Venice, CA, who is in the process of breaking bad. As the play begins, he has just been released from prison where he served four years for a string of brazen arsons. Now, far from having been rehabilitated, he is planning something far more sinister.
Mr. Shields was kind enough to take time to answer some questions for ArtsBeat LA.
Tell us a bit more about the show and what makes it appropriate material for the Fringe.
At a deeper level, the play is about how the bad things that happen to people early in their lives keep playing out in their adulthood in tragic ways — as addiction, fantasies of revenge, emotional deadness and loss of the capacity for love.
The tone is dark but lively with plenty of humor, in keeping (I hope) with my playwright heroes — Sam Shepard, David Rabe, David Mamet; and of course the old masters, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I realize that might sound grandiose, but those writers really are my inspiration, and The Arsonist of Venice is an ambitious piece…years in the making.
I think it’s right for Fringe because it aims high and takes risks, which, by my lights, is what this motley, experimental community is all about. Furthermore, I’m keenly aware that for many Fringe shows the festival has been a jumping off point for longer runs with bigger profiles, and I’m very interested in making use of that model for The Arsonist of Venice.
What was the inspiration behind the creation of this show?
I’ve been an actor in Hollywood my entire adult life, and I’ve had the great luck to enjoy a real career in movies and television, working with many of the top names in the business and playing major roles in award winning films and series. Nevertheless, I’ve felt a gnawing sense that I was capable of more than what the roles I was landing allowed. So, at a certain point I thought, “Well, I’m a pretty good writer. Why don’t I just write my dream role so I can quit waiting around?” That role, it turned out, is Robertson Allen, the Arsonist of Venice — a brilliant, deeply wounded, and destructive character lashing out at a world that betrayed him. I suppose Robertson represents certain hurt, angry parts of myself, coming as I did from a fraught and violent background.
I based the character of his adoptive brother, Joe Rakhsha, on my friend and creative partner Bernard C. Bayer, whose mother fled Iran after the 1979 revolution there. I used aspects of Bernard’s biography to create a character that would be perfect for him.
The haunted, mercurial Marie, Robertson’s girlfriend, is a composite of several women I’ve known — my mother, my sister, and, yes, a couple of exes.
Finally, Robertson’s father, Thomas Allen, is based loosely on my own father, whose legendary mind and charisma were matched by staggering flaws and an irredeemable past.
How has it been working with this ensemble in the fast-paced Fringe environment?
I feel very lucky to have found the actors I’m working with on Arsonist, and to be co-directing with Michael Shaw Fisher, the brilliant writer, actor and director (and frequent luminary of the Hollywood Fringe). It’s a fantastic group of artists in whom I have total confidence as we enter this final phase before our preview on June 2nd.
As for the pace of the Fringe environment, that has been a learning curve. I’m the main producer and promoter for my show, and the work load, on top of the acting and directing — um, yeah, it’s a lot. I’m looking forward to mounting the play again with the weight of a production company behind it so I can focus entirely on the art side. On the other hand, it’s felt meaningful for me to put my shoulder to the wheel in service of my creative dream. I think this piece deserves to find its place in the world, and I’m proud that I’ve gone to such lengths to make it happen.
What can audiences expect when they come to see the show?
Audiences can expect to be ushered into a rich and difficult world of damaged, well-rendered characters, of layered, finely tuned dialogue; and of poetry, loss, trauma, violence, family, crime, and dangerous romantic passion. I’ve tried to bring out the humor and joy in my troubled characters to whatever degree possible so that the piece doesn’t sink into uniform gloom and become unwatchable. But my deepest hope is that the audience will come away rattled and revitalized by human truths that most people, most of the time, prefer to leave undisturbed in some dusty cellar of the soul.
Since the Fringe is a collaborative effort, what other shows are on your radar?
Oh Gosh, so many. I’ve attended every Fringe social I could possibly manage, met a lot of fascinating artists, and had a lot of wild, hilarious conversations about too many shows to count. I’ll just name a few of the ones I’m not going to miss…
The Jason Helfgott Experience by Jason Helfgott
Jason is an artist. I gleaned that much after the first five minutes of hearing him rap about his show. What he’s doing is experimental in the purest sense, a movement piece with almost no dialogue, but not exactly dance either. I don’t know what to expect, frankly, but to say I’m intrigued would be an understatement. This is a guy out there on the fringes, truly doing his own thing, making up the medium, and his courage and dedication to his strange art are palpable in every word he says about it.
Love is a Battlefield by Barry Brisco
Barry and producer Terrence are two of my favorite “fringeships” so far. They’re hilarious, charming, dedicated as can be, and their play sounds like hysterical, poignant fun. It’s about two college guys who get drunk together and sorta like accidentally have a gay fling. And it’s about their none-too-happy girlfriends. And all the rage, confusion, and madness that ensues. So, I won’t miss this one. If the energy of the show is anything like the contagious enthusiasm and warmth of its creators, it’s going to be a hell of a ride. 🙂
Palmares by Chandler Evans
For sheer scope and ambition, this one is a no-brainer. I mean it’s a period piece featuring a large cast, Capoeira, fight scenes, songs, freemen, and Portuguese slavers. What on Earth could go wrong?
The Arsonist of Venice runs June 2-23 at the Broadwater (Second Stage), 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. The June 23 performance is also available to view virtually. Check the Fringe site for tickets and exact dates and showtimes.