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Bahni Turpin as Regina , with ensemble and members of the audience in fellowship at Cornerstone Theater (Photo by Brian Biery)

Bahni Turpin as Regina , with ensemble and members of the audience in fellowship at Cornerstone Theater (Photo by Brian Biery)


fellowship (a play for volunteers)

Reviewed by Mayank Keshaviah
Cornerstone Theatre
Through February 12

RECOMMENDED

Opponents of the new administration in Washington have issued a vociferous call to action.
This call has included marches and protests, petition signing, donations, and literally thousands of telephone calls to elected officials. While the aftermath of the November elections may play out in ugly ways politically, one hopes that one of its side effects will be an increase in activism and participation among citizens.

To that end, Cornerstone Theater provides what may be the perfect opportunity for the civic-minded theatergoer with its production of fellowship, written by Julie Marie Myatt. For 30 years, the company has specialized in theater that integrates members of marginalized communities into the theater-making process.  With fellowship it takes community involvement to the next level by including the theater-goer in a very hands-on way.

During the course of the show, audience members help the actors prepare 120 brown-bag lunches to be served at a later time to those in need.  I saw the show at Santa Monica’s West LA Food Bank (it plays at different venues throughout the run), a cavernous warehouse where six tables are arranged in a circle to provide seating in the midst of stacks of canned food and beverages.

Upon entering, audience members are asked to wash their hands and put on gloves. Then, as the play begins, they start assembling sack lunches while listening to the conversation between ensemble members who, very meta-theatrically, play volunteers at a food bank. Director Peter Howard efficiently systematizes and choreographs the meal assembly process, both in terms of the materials handed out and the staging of the performers’ movements.

A musical soundtrack that features 60s and 70s classics like “Everyday People”, “Lean on Me”, and “Move On Up” provides provide a festive and inspirational accompaniment to the lunch preparation process.  These songs clearly reflect themes of acceptance and empowerment. There are also chants and songs sung by the performers, including a cleverly modified version of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” from Hair. The music of an era when protests in the street for social justice were common and necessary becomes the soundtrack to an evening in an era when they seem to be becoming more common and necessary once again. Strangely fitting.

There is light banter between the characters throughout, which makes the show feel half-improvised and half-scripted. That tone shifts, however, when “Hunger” — a larger-than-life puppet manipulated by three actors — pays a visit.  The puppet’s jagged reflective mask brings out darker revelations from each of the characters it confronts.

While the writing and acting are a bit uneven, the real success of the piece — outside of creating 120 meals each night — is the sense of community and positive energy it fosters in audience members. It’s more of a happening than a play, so the text becomes far less important than in traditional theater. That’s probably for the best because, though the backstories of the characters are moving at times, the “messages” they convey can feel preachy and presentational.

In the same way that many Americans are finally starting to realize they can no longer sit back and watch their leaders solve the country’s problems, those who attend fellowship will be reminded, through theater, that change comes from individual purposeful action. Or, as one of the show’s characters puts it, “Making a lunch for someone — I don’t know: it feels useful.”

Cornerstone Theater; Thurs., 7:30 p.m. (Pico-Union); Fri., 7:30 p.m. (Santa Monica); Sat., 5 p.m. (Pacoima); Sun.,  2 p.m. (Watts); through February 12. (800) 578-1335 or http://cornerstonetheater.org/fellowship. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

 

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