October 18, 2001
at the Vedanta Society
Dialogue isn't just for the actors in Cornerstone Theater Company's Zones, a play by Peter Howard that is running at 10 religious venues across the Southland. Conceived "at the intersection of performance and community dialogue," Zones incorporates into the play proper--which itself is set at a public hearing--a number of facilitated participatory discussions among audience members. Those who are horrified by the thought of a breached fourth wall, or of being asked to improvise with performers to the discomfort of all present, need not worry too much; playwright Howard and director Bill Rauch have finessed the participatory sections to be as seamless as they can be, while respecting audience boundaries (though be warned--you can't entirely opt out of all interaction).
Indeed, that finessing turned out to be a part of the problem with Zones on the night I saw it last week: It offered the audience some tantalizing moments of contact with one another and with the group at large to raise and discuss issues of religious diversity--then essentially went on with the show, in which a routine zoning hearing about the new Center for Exquisite Balance in Hollywood is contested by an estranged mother and daughter (Barbara Roberts and Diana Elizabeth Jordan), an atheist lawyer (Armando Molina), and a charismatic Christian minister (Shishir Kurup). Trying to hold it all together is a frazzled zoning administrator, Judith Tetley-Stone (Amy Hill), with the reluctant help of a grumpy caretaker (Donald Bishop).
Unfortunately Howard's play, which wants us to consider where we "draw lines" around our own beliefs to the exclusion of others and, in a larger sense, how well or poorly our civic culture handles these often submerged divisions, failed to resonate or harmonize in a challenging way with the concerns raised in dialogue by the mostly liberal, live-and-let-live audience at last week's preview at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. As such, while the show's personal conflicts--between the styles and worldviews of Molina's lawyer and Kurup's pastor, or between the mother and daughter over religion--provide plenty of tetchy comedy and moving drama, the play's larger cultural conflict, which roughly posits tolerance against exclusion and which, to its credit, strives mightily to take both sides seriously, felt like a fait accompli.
Undoubtedly it will be a different show at its other venues (see listing below); that is the problematic but admirable risk Howard takes with this full-contact interaction. But there's another dissonance here, which can't entirely be blamed on Howard or Cornerstone. Howard's brilliantly "made up" religion, Exquisite Balance, is itself an exquisite balance of the absurd and the beautiful, the cult-like and the inspiring. It's made up precisely so we have no preconceptions about it in particular and instead are asked to examine our preconceptions about a "strange" or minority faith with a clean slate. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Americans of faith are suddenly quite interested in religions, both dominant and minority, in their particulars rather than in the abstract. I suppose only atheists and agnostics may have the objectivity now to consider religion dispassionately; that isn't the case, however, with Molina's atheist lawyer, who, in one of the evening's false notes, rages that the conception of God in "this country" seems to be "getting narrower and narrower." I think it's only fair right now to ask, which country is he talking about?
As a kick-off for Cornerstone's new faith-based community cycle, which will span more than three years and untold numbers of spiritually defined Southland communities, Zones is an auspiciously earnest, boldly experimental opener. Like a conversation starter in a crowded room, it has its share of awkwardness and presumption; it also has the unassailable virtues of good faith, open-heartedness, and, despite its seriousness, Cornerstone's trademark sense of play. I have faith that the dialogue fostered by this new cycle will both deepen and broaden (and as a sometime associate and friend of the company, I consider this review a part of that dialogue, if I may). To borrow from the liturgy, Zones is a promising foretaste of the feast to come.
"Zones," presented by Cornerstone Theater Company at Westwood United Methodist Church (Oct. 5-7); the University of Judaism (Oct. 11); the Vedanta Society (Oct. 12); the Hsi Lai Temple (Oct. 13); St. Philomena Church (Oct. 14); at the Los Angeles Baha'i Center, 5755 Rodeo Rd., Baldwin Hills, Sun. Oct. 21, 3 p.m.; at Faith United Methodist Church, 1713 W. 108th St., Los Angeles, Sun. Oct. 28, 4 p.m. (ASL interpreted); at Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 815 E. First St., L.A., Thurs. Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.; at Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, Sat. Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m., and at New Horizon School, 651 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, Fri. Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m. Pay What You Can. (213) 613-1740.