Review by Bradley Laas
What do Scientology, Jonestown, and SoulCycle all have in common? They extort the weak with a false sense of belonging. They create an artificial community of seemingly loving citizens. But these communities are backed by something much darker. Scientology provides salvation (for those who can afford it) but encourages tattle-taling, shunning, and the breakdown of family units. Jonestown offered a safe haven for the mistreated minority communities of the United States, but ultimately ended in the death of 918 people. Soulcycle pushes people to better their lives through exercise but, as exemplified in the TV show “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” can foster distorted body images and a competitive atmosphere that ruins friendships.
A leader of a cult never comes forward and says “Hey guys, this is a cult. Join at your own will.” No, instead they convince people that they can find something with this group that cannot be found anywhere else. Cornerstone is no different.
Cornerstone is a fictional self-help organization at the center of the new interactive play Cornerstone, written by Kevin Sparrow and presented by Nothing Without a Company. The show began the second I walked through the doors at Art Space 8. I was greeted with toothy smiles and hopeless eyes by actors already in character. First, I was told to wander the playing space whenever I felt like it. I was then guided to the auditorium where the fictional self-help seminar begins. Dr. Phranque Wright (played by doctor Phranque Wright) begins the seminar with the first of many helpful phrases: CACAPA: Constantly Already Considering All Possible Answers. From here, I was offered testimony of how Cornerstone had saved lives. I was nearly convinced and ready to commit myself. (I did admittedly filled out paperwork to go on a weekend retreat). Then things start to follow apart. Actors are arguing in the entrance and by the water cooler. I got up to explore only to find out that Cornerstone may not be what it seems.
Cornerstone is a great evening of interactive, experimental theater. The players are always on. I ran into Wanda (played by Wanda Jin) as we were passing by each other outside the restroom and she still talked to me in character. This show is nothing short of a marathon of improvisational and theatrical talents as each actor was forced to embody the character so much that they could converse without lines.
The action of the show does not take place in a distinct playing space. Sure, a lot was covered at the ‘seminar’ but the drama of the show occurs in multiple rooms, often at the same time. At times this made the show hard to follow, but I think that is part of the point. We may never know what exactly occurs inside of institutions such as Scientology; there are always missing parts to the puzzle. The same is true with Cornerstone.I spent the entire evening in vague anxiety about the organization being pitched to me. This created exciting, dynamic theatre worthy of one, or maybe two viewings. I have to state here that I despise audience participation. I did not mind it with Cornerstone. I felt both like a human desperate for help and a journalist desperate for a story. I was simultaneously willing to believe the facade of Cornerstone and wanting to figure out what really occurred at those weekend seminars. This is a testament to both my own mental state and the craft behind the show. You will leave with unanswered questions but well entertained.
Cornerstone, a Nothing Without A Company production, is now playing at 900 N. Michigan Ave in Artspace 8 through the end of April. Tickets are available at https://cornerstone.brownpapertickets.com.