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THEATER REVIEW

For one shining moment, consensus

June 06, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

You might call it the parable of the 10 freeway.

A holier-than-thou tone has begun to creep into a theological discussion between a Jewish poet and her assistant, who comes from a Christian Cambodian immigrant family. Attempting to put their differences into perspective, the poet turns to metaphor.

"You have all these Christians zipping along on the 10," she says, "and when they hear that all the Jews are driving on Olympic Boulevard, the Christians say, 'Well, why didn't you take the freeway?' "

She concludes by explaining: "Different roads can sometimes take you to the same place."

The line, at an opening-weekend performance of "A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters," was met with applause. In keeping with the play's message, the response signaled that disparate people had experienced a moment of consensus.

The performances, which will be repeated this weekend at Ford Amphitheatre, are the culmination of a Cornerstone Theater Company project that, for more than four years, has engaged area communities in discussions about how faith unites and sometimes divides people.

The conversations generated seven full-length plays and a festival of 21 short works, with input from Native Americans, Catholic immigrants, Jews, African American Christians, Buddhists, atheists/nonbelievers, Bahais, Hindus, Muslims and the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community.

Written by James Still, "A Long Bridge" is independent from such preceding pieces as "Crossings: Journeys of Catholic Immigrants" and "You Can't Take It With You: An American Muslim Remix."

Yet like the previous works, it was very much inspired by what Cornerstone learned from the public.

The cast numbers more than 50, with nine professional actors working alongside community participants.

The venue, the Ford, has its own story to tell. The Cahuenga Pass amphitheater began life as the Pilgrimage Theatre, established in the 1920s by Christine Wetherill Stevenson, heir to the Pittsburgh Paints fortune, for presentation of religious plays.

"A Long Bridge" begins as a ghostly gathering of Stevenson (Loraine Shields) and her performers. They have just begun to reenact their show when they are interrupted first by a Native American chant, then by a cellphone's musical ring tone. The present day is on the line, yearning to tell its own stories.

Through the next 10 vignettes, the pageant performers -- seated beyond the playing area on a long, bridge-like row of chairs -- one by one pull off their Old Testament robes, transforming into present-day characters.

Presented in the cyclical manner of Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde," with something from each scene carrying over into the next, the play gently yet persuasively suggests we're all somehow connected.

Artfully staged by departing Cornerstone artistic director Bill Rauch, the stories head in often-surprising directions, as when two men (Peter Howard and Michael Phillip Edwards) don astronaut helmets, then -- ethereally isolated by Geoff Korf's lighting -- "space walk" along a line of chairs to reach their orbiting station.

Performance quality varies, as it inevitably does whenever Cornerstone invites so many of its new friends to the stage. Yet in a backhanded way, this keeps things real, and it helps to remind us that we're all learning from one another, much as the teacher (DeLanna Studi) in the first vignette finds herself being taught by her English-as-a-second-language class.

We learn from the African American Methodist family that so un-self-consciously demonstrates its affection, from the atheist family looking for a new home because of neighborhood hostility, from the gay Muslim who feels welcome in neither the gay nor Muslim communities -- and from so many others.

Laughter gives way to tears, then laughter again. And by the end, the audience has been led to realize that Los Angeles is much like the character of mixed heritage who says: "I'm made up of all that's come before me."

*

'A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters'

Where: Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $20 Friday and Saturday; suggested donation of $10 or pay what you can Thursday and Sunday.

Contact: (323) 461-3673 or www.FordAmphitheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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