December 18, 1997



at the CSO Building


Reviewed by Rob Kendt


The festive, community-based shows created and staged by Cornerstone Theater Company are like holidays unto themselves. Who else could (or would) have made its birthday, June 30, into a sweeping historical epic, starring people who shared that birthdate, in 1996's Birthday of the Century?


But Cornerstone's newest production, created with residents of Boyle Heights, is a bona fide holiday pageant. Adapted by Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez from a "Mexican shepherd's play" (I assume that refers to a genre, not to the ouevre of a particular field worker), Los Vecinos: A Play for Neighbors envisions a pilgrimage of lost souls not to the star of Bethlehem but to a "light of perfect goodness" rising out of the bedlam of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Beset on one side by tempting demons under the thumb of a Godfather-like devil, Luzbel (a seething Armando Duran), and guided on the other by a fiesty angel from on high (Maricela Ochoa, who has an appealing, Bernadette Peters-like sass), the play's wanderers overcome their infighting to discover the light--where else?--in each other.


It's a mythic battle of absolute good and evil that recalls Cornerstone's delightfully cartoonish Los Faustinos, though Alfaro and Rodriguez strive to give it some nuance and contemporary reference. Duran's Luzbel, in particular, conjures some uncommonly moving moments speaking of the desolation of L.A.; he's encouraging the pilgrims to give in to despair, of course, but Duran makes these speeches into powerful, lonely laments. And the adaptors have a lot fun with Luzbel's head enforcer, the bumblebee-clad Satanas (an uproarious Armando Molina), whose temptations take the form of free Lotto tickets and sex advice.


Still, this is a show with a pleasingly silly gang-rumble showdown, and insight and shading have to give over. Rodriguez' staging--in a cavernous, gym-like space in a dilapidated Boyle Heights community center--lives up to the lively, multi-layered Cornerstone standard, though she relies a bit too much on scrambling and shouting to keep our attention. Still, it's hard not to love Sandy Adams' evocative props, Akeime Mitterlahner's versatile set pieces, Jose Lopez's musty lighting, and Audrey Fisher's witty Gothic-meets-Alice in Wonderland costumes. Shishir Kurup, leading a sporty live trio, again contributes a prickly, lyrical score of songs, and choreographer Paul Nunes-Ueno gives the show some haunting tableaux.


The cast, another seamless blend of professionals and non-, is game and watchable, with Omar Gomez in particular standing out as a perpetually indignant vaquero and Pat Nolan diverting as a pathetic paranoid. But more than any Cornerstone show since Central Avenue Chalk Circle, it is the supporting ensemble--teens playing devils dressed as mods and angels decked in pajamas and feathers--that fleshes out the proceedings and gives them their otherworldly, play-making atmosphere. The feeling is more Halloween than Christmas--all to the good in my book.


"Los Vecinos: A Play for Neighbors," presented by Cornerstone Theater Company at the CSO Building, 2130 1st St., Boyle Heights. Dec. 4-21. (310) 449-1700.