BACK STAGE WEST

January 11, 2001

 

Critic Takes a Holiday

Why performing in Cornerstone's 'For Here or To Go?' at the Taper was the best Christmas gift ever.

 

by Rob Kendt

 

"Excuse me, I'm Rob Kendt, and I'm reviewing tonight's performance for Back Stage West--just so you know."

 

That's what I stood up and blurted out at the Mark Taper Forum last month in the midst of a paying audience (and a few of my fellow comped-in critics). It was late in the second act of Cornerstone Theater Company's holiday show, which had gone badly awry that night--with audience members threatening to leave, even jumping up onstage to interject themselves into the action, and the writer/director, Shishir Kurup, trying desperately to manage the chaos and include all points of view.

 

Moments later, Rafa, the young burger flipper who had taken the reins of the show after being thrust onstage from the audience early in the first act, coaxed me onstage to accompany a "battle scene," since the four-member band had left the stage in disgust when I announced my presence. I found myself improvising on various instruments on the abandoned bandstand as Rafa gave a rallying speech to a motley stage full of "soldiers." These included a stagehand and wardrobe person from the Taper, a security guard and parking attendant from the Music Center, and a homeless woman--most dragged in by members of the professional cast, who had chucked their scripted play and were now down with the quixotic alternative program of Rafa and his fast food co-workers.

 

And then I began to sing my review.╔

 

This was all scripted, of course, and I was a cast member, one of 11 audience plants. But for each of the 12 public performances of For Here or To Go?, Cornerstone's wild holiday valentine to the City of Angels, I never entirely shook the out-of-body strangeness of crossing over, of entering the world of the play to strut and fret on the stage where I've seen so much beauty created, among artists I've watched and admired for years. Maybe the holidays played a part in this, but the experience felt to me uncannily like an instructional fantasy, along the lines of those offered by the angel Clarence to George Bailey or the three Christmas ghosts to Scrooge: The angels of Cornerstone took me inside a world I'd seen only from the outside, and threw into sharp, illuminating relief the part I typically play in that world, as a theatregoer and as a critic.

 

Context Providers

I've covered Cornerstone Theater Company since I was assigned by Downtown News to report on the company's first show in L.A., The Toy Truck, a sprawling adaptation of a Sanskrit epic mounted at the senior housing facility Angelus Plaza, with a cast of multilingual oldsters alongside the Cornerstone pros, in 1992. These thirtysomething theatre makers had come from years of touring the country in a van, doing Hamlet with ranchers and Aeschylus on an Indian reservation, and they had chosen the West Coast as a home base for its diversity and relatively comfortable lifestyle.

 

I was at first a bit skeptical of a troupe of white Harvard grads colonizing L.A. to explore and be inspired by its cultural polyglot; in my lead for that first feature story, I lamely quipped, "Did Peter Sellars stumble into some bizarre cloning experiment?" And it was a little hard to believe that actors and creative types had really come to Hollywood just to make multicultural theatre.

 

I was won over--and over and over again--by their commitment to their mission, and by the entertaining, inspiring, often moving results. Cornerstone's 15-month Watts residency, for instance, produced some of the most memorable nights I've had in the theatre, or in Los Angeles period (it's no accident that place and production are integrally linked), from Los Faustinos to The Central Avenue Chalk Circle, and I also enjoyed watching a play on a bus parked at the Museum of Contemporary Art, following Candude around the grounds and interior of the Central Library, and seeing a series of shows in non-traditional spaces like Santa Monica Place mall, Baldwin Hills Plaza, community centers in Boyle Heights, and the hollowed-out Subway Terminal Building downtown.

 

Indeed, it's safe to say that while I haven't liked every Cornerstone show I've seen, the company's best work has offered me some of the essential theatregoing experiences I've had anywhere, anytime, and has even helped to shape me as a critic.

 

One thing I've learned from Cornerstone shows, and from being in one all the more, is that one of the subtexts of every play is the story of the audience and the actors onstage, the theatre space, that night in history, the neighborhood, the city where it's happening, the sirens whirring by. The ephemeral coincidence of all these things around a theatre activity at a specific time and place is a part of a play's meaning, however subconsciously. Cornerstone shows tend to bring that subtext aboveground and hold it up to the light; they make it hard to avoid noticing where we are, who's onstage, who's next to us in the audience, not just because all these may be novel to us but also because specificity of time and place is a central element of Cornerstone's work, from its casting of non-professional community volunteers to its typical insistence on finding or fashioning a venue accessible to that community.

 

Revolutionary Pizza Party

Even for a company with that emphasis, Alison Carey's For Here or To Go? was almost dizzyingly self-reflexive: It was literally a play about doing a play at the Taper. And it wasn't built on a classic, really, the way some of Carey's most brilliant efforts have been (California Seagull, Twelfth Night, or As You Were, MalliĆre, The Good Person of New Haven), though a few of For Here or To Go?'s conceits, such as audience members demanding a play more to their liking, or some of them spontaneously enacting tales of knightly chivalry, come from Francis Beaumont's 1607 play The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

 

Carey's mandate was to fill the Taper's post-season holiday bonus slot with a show that would celebrate four winter holidays--Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, and Kwanzaa--as well as bring together community artists from all 14 of Cornerstone residencies in L.A. thus far. What she delivered was a playful, prankish pageant-in-spite-of-itself with 42 speaking parts, lots of wordplay and slapstick, plenty of backstage squabbles and audience feedback spilling from the aisles to the stage and back, disarming tributes to the requisite holidays and to the diversity of L.A., incongruous musical numbers, and a concluding pizza party.

 

Director Bill Rauch staged it with an alternately sunny and tender touch, while at the same time cheekily pushing the scripted interruptions to a level of befrazzled chaos that some exiting theatregoers clearly found too nerve-jangling, even if they understood that it was scripted. Others--including some critics--found its contrived messiness just tiring. The word "self-indulgent" reared its ugly head.

 

And yet, clearly, many audience members connected with the show; it received a few standing ovations and many ecstatic post-show comments. These audiences laughed at and with the disruptions, at the struggle of the actors to hold their play together against the onslaught of audience suggestions, at the absurd insurgence of a group of fast-food workers who took the stage to defend their industry against the play's plot-driven diss of Burger King, and ended up defending their city's honor and redeemability as a "holy land" in itself. This last fight became by default the play's true theme, as Don Quixote devotee Rafa (played by the passionate Omar Gomez) took on the mantle of the "spirit of L.A.," in vintage Carey speeches that were as heartfelt as they were wickedly funny.

 

I think those audiences who went along for the ride and enjoyed it not only understood but also bought into the play's revolutionary agenda: These 42 performers, who included professional actors and non-professional folks of wide-ranging ages, cultures, types, and professions, were hijacking L.A.'s most significant theatre venue in a deceptively goofy, stunt-like way to get us to ask anew the most serious questions about who we are as Angelenos, let alone theatregoers. The show's answer, wrapped in the swaddling clothes of holiday good wishes, either came off as what one critic called disaparagingly a "dramatized group hug" or as a ringing affirmation of strength in diversity--as one song lyric put it, "a model of the power of love in our diversity."

 

Chaos Theory

These, at least, are some of the impressions I was able to salvage from the through-the-looking-glass experience of reading reviews and fretting about audience responses from the performer's side of the aisle. I tried to fight the impulse to argue with the bad reviews, or question the humanity or intelligence of those who didn't like it--which is what I'm sure others do when they disagree with my reviews. My thinking was, I fear, all too typically defensive: I'd go from "They didn't get it" to "Is it coming across?" to perhaps the only sane but hardly satisfying equivocation, "It's not for everyone."

 

I ran into one acquaintance at intermission who was leaving ("And it takes a lot for me to leave a show," he said without elaborating), and that stung. But how could I guilt him into staying through the second act just because I was secretly in the show? And I had a post-show conversation with a man at Otto's Bar and Grill who rated the show a "C-minus," saying that while he found some of the play funny, he couldn't quite believe the Taper had allowed amateurs on its stage, and in such a "silly" show. It was a little silly, I had to agree, but the "planned" production--a cartoonishly broad culture-crossed romance in the midst of a restaurant closing--was a house of cards, I explained, built to be destroyed by the audience rebellion. I began to realize as I uttered this defense that many people just don't want a rebellion, especially not a goofy one with high fives and Domino's pizza, at the theatre.

 

My favorite holiday gift came at the final Christmas Eve performance in the form of two friendly older patrons next to me who didn't know anything about Cornerstone or the show. They hadn't even read Michael Phillips' generally positive L.A. Times review, which gave away many of the show's "secrets." As such, they were the perfect test case--and they laughed the whole way through, even fretting at intermission about the folks who had left. "We're loving it," they said. (They even gave me a conspiratorial nudge after I stood to deliver my line in Act Two, joking that they'd suspected me all along.)

 

At the other extreme was the infamous intermission comment from a patron who walked up to one of the audience plants, the terrific Loraine Shields, and said, "You have ruined the Taper for me."

 

Gordon Davidson, the Taper's artistic director, laughed when I reported that comment to him. Apparently most of the feedback had been good, in fact, and besides, he said, "Every theatre needs a little chaos now and then, otherwise it gets stale." I told him about the raucous pay-what-you-can performance of For Here in which a young boy, emboldened by the obliteration of the fourth wall, ran up onstage to ask for a piece of pizza, and Davidson recalled a preview of Zoot Suit decades ago, when Latino theatregoers jumped onstage during a fight between white sailors and Chicano zoot suiters to defend their brethren.

 

"That's when the theatre is working--when people feel they can be a part of it," he said.

 

A simple enough statement, but for me--who has covered theatre for years from my critic's seat, and who couldn't have asked for a more felicitous or flattering debut on the other side of the footlights--it speaks volumes. The experience not only changed me as a critic and a theatregoer, but, given the people involved, their histories, the venue, and the time of year, affected me deeply as an Angeleno and a human being. That's a gift, I know, that will keep on giving.