Connection to a community is our theater's strongest lifeline. Without at least the implicit sense that a performance offers to its community a kind of antidote to the toxicity of our age, our theater will have no reason to be. By toxicity, I mean that weird blend of hypertechnology and hypermarketing and hyperspin and hypercorruption of our political and social systems that has been slowly trickling down since about 1980.
John Steppling and Lex Steppling's Gunfighter Nation, with its blend of dramatists in their 50s and 60s (and older), and community activists in their 20s and 30s (and younger), is one example of a new theater company sending out at least a thin laser beam directed at the cancer of our era. The aim is authenticity — a target now so obfuscated, it's hard to recognize even when you see it.
A far more established company doing a variation on the same is Cornerstone Theater Company. Now 25 years old, the troupe left New England and resettled in Los Angeles in 1992. In that time, it has set up an intricate and overlapping network of individual funders and funding organizations, allowing it to speak almost as freely as it wants, and to pay union wages to its company members.
Perhaps the greatest strength and irony of Cornerstone is the way its populist philosophy is largely untethered from commercial pressures. It has probably the best system around for getting audiences in the door: Put on stage members of the community, alongside professional actors. This quasi-interactive device is a theatrical equivalent of having readers posting comments while they're reading an online newspaper article, thereby standing alongside and speaking back to the professional author. And though this brand of populism dating back 25 years was ahead of its time, Cornerstone's dependence on box office revenues for its survival pales in comparison to most other midsize theaters that relegate their community to seats in the house.
Regardless of the excellence of Cornerstone's shows, or lack thereof, the prescient wisdom of its founding principle is undeniable — of going into a community and presenting a performance about that community, for that community, using members of that community. Meanwhile, the company makes its decisions collectively — even executive ones. (Insiders have noted that this is sometimes more idealistic than practical.) The onstage result is akin to produce from a farmers' collective growing organic vegetables and fruit, the product of an earnest and sometimes sanctimonious effort by very bright, hardworking people who defiantly, philosophically and collectively refuse to make the easy compromise.
Behind riffs of Brechtian irony, there are progressive and humane messages in these performances, which arrive via the sometimes sentimentally rigged theatrics of, say, a play by Clifford Odets. Minor pedantic riffs deserve forgiveness because, in the company's cyclical examinations of faith, and justice, and their upcoming cycle of plays on hunger, the worthy ambition is to confront head-on and to dissect the Through the Looking Glass politics that are shredding the fabric of our democracy. These include the new Orwellian "free speech" sanctioned by our highest court: the billions of dollars being poured into our political discourse by corporations that are now under no obligation to disclose who they are, where they're based or how much they've spent to drown out the voices of opposition and dissent.
Cornerstone provides, in a comparatively uncorrupted form, at least one more model of how theater can be used to explore the mental ward that our society has become, and what precisely led us there.
Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical, with book by Tom Jacobson, lyrics by Shishir Kurup and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, is the troupe's first new musical (as opposed to a play with music). It also marks the conjunction of two 25-year anniversaries — of Cornerstone Theater Company and the City of West Hollywood. On opening weekend, half of City Hall sat in the bleachers of Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park, where the show is playing. This is the same auditorium where the controversial vote to grant city status to the then-unincorporated West Hollywood district of L.A. County took place all those years ago — a controversy depicted in the musical.
The city officials beamed with pride throughout the performance, and not because the fictional depiction of local history was particularly flattering, but because the history — at least a history — was being told, and sung, and danced.
Jacobson's penchant for the history of local communities (his The Twentieth Century Way, about a 1914 gay-entrapment case in Long Beach, was presented by the Theater @ Boston Court earlier this year) is now as well documented in the prolific playwright's works as his inclination to filter his themes through a theological lens: Two sets of American tourists meet in Italy's ancient Catholic catacombs in Ourosboros; a local Lutheran church gently falls apart in his Chekhovian The Orange Grove; and Making Paradise includes a married Episcopalian priest (Peter James Smith) with an erotic penchant for younger men.
The challenges of this endeavor almost overwhelm it. The musical, however, is rescued not so much by its craft, which frequently wobbles, but by the clear focus of its ambitions — that it conspicuously has no intention of playing in any theater beyond Fiesta Hall. It was designed for this space, and this space alone; for this community, and this community alone. Its temporal essence, and its many actors cast from the community, give it the kind of local charm that comes with so many services in community churches. It is, in other words, sacred, under the co-direction of Michael John Garcés and Mark Valdez. Not sacred in a downtown cathedral kind of way, but in the style of church that serves percolated coffee from a big chrome decanter on a folding table, with paper napkins and Styrofoam bowls for the plastic stir-sticks.
The West Hollywood renters of pre-city 1983, who are aching to have their interests protected by a rent-control ordinance that could only be drafted by a city administration (that they're lobbying to create), have their interests challenged by the local chamber of commerce, employing the same ontological loops that are still painfully familiar: What's good for the renters is not necessarily good for business, and what's not good for business can't be good for the quality of life. Add to this the "threat" that the new city would be run by lesbians. Could there be a more horrifying prospect for the notoriously homophobic and Reaganomic Russian immigrants?
Among the show's many strengths are Kurup's taut and witty lyrics, which encapsulate a universe within a stanza: "The Russians hate the homos/The Christians hate the Jews/The homos hate the heteros/The zealots light the fuse/The seniors hate the youngsters/The youngsters hate the rich/The businessman just bides his time and profits from this bitch." (Echoes of Tom Lehrer's sarcastic "National Brotherhood Week"!)
Among the many interpersonal relationships, there is, of course, one crisis that anchors the story, which is a fictitious compilation of people and circumstances, based on research and Jacobson's having lived in West Hollywood for years. Debauched and bewildered Curly (Derek Manson, in a sharp and accomplished performance) is out on a drunken Halloween binge when the transsexual he's ostensibly protecting, Maria (Desiree Jade Sol), is struck by a car. Is it a hate crime, or an accident? Maria becomes the Mother Mary of the West Hollywood cityhood movement; hers is a death that could have been prevented if the unincorporated district had the services and protections that a city — particularly a city administered by gays — could have provided. The later obligatory death-by-AIDS of a character named Jesus (Richard Rocha) is really pushing the religious symbolism. And the resolution of what actually happened is overexplained at the end.
Yet the production is smart enough to wink at its flaws, at its shameless sentimentality and at the sometimes ridiculous artifice of musicals, partly with Sheetal Gandhi's mocking choreography. The banter — "It's a memory, it's a metaphor, it's a musical!" — sums up the creators' best defense.
Like a suppliant in a community church service, it asks forgiveness for its sins. Only an ogre wouldn't give that much back, in exchange for the purity of the service.
MAKING PARADISE: THE WEST HOLLYWOOD MUSICAL | Book by TOM JACOBSON, music by DEBORAH WICKS LA PUMA, lyrics by SHISHIR KURUP | Presented by CORNERSTONE THEATER COMPANY at PLUMMER PARK, FIESTA HALL | 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 7. | (213) 250-1685