It Won't Play In Peoria

While New York theater percolates with high-profile projects, marquee-caliber stars, and the thrill of premieres, Miami often must be content with Broadway Lite, Andrew Lloyd Weber slapping together a touring company to extract a few more cents from Phantom. New York probably thinks that's the way it should be. After all, they're bigger, aren't they? A bone is all they have to throw us. So maybe it's time to reconsider our approach. Maybe we should appeal not to the giants, but to the midgets.

When the curtain goes up on William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in Bayfront Park at 7:00 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, Miami will be importing its drama not from New York or Chicago, but from Port Gibson, Mississippi, a speck of a town whose total population isn't much greater than the park's.

The Port Gibson-Miami connection comes courtesy of the Cornerstone Theater Company, an unorthodox, New York-based troupe that has spent the last five years as thespian missionaries. Cornerstone was born in 1986; its midwives, Bill Rauch and Alison Carey, were two Harvard grads who wanted to boldly go where no theater company had gone before. "In the very original vision of Cornerstone, we just wanted to travel around the country and do plays for people who didn't see theater," says Rauch. "After we started, we realized we had to involve these communities not only as audiences but as actors and as backstage crew members." To accomplish its aims, Cornerstone decided to touch down in remote villages for three-to-four-month residencies that would culminate in a full-scale theatrical production.

Since its first season, divided among Dinwiddie, Virginia; Marmarth, North Dakota; and Marfa, Texas, Cornerstone has ventured into almost a dozen communities you've never heard of, towns small enough to fit inside a decent-size suitcase - anyone here from Long Creek, Oregon? The company has produced both ancient and modern works, mixing Aeschylus in with Bertolt Brecht and Thornton Wilder.

After five years of turning one-horse towns into one-theater towns, Cornerstone decided to throw itself a birthday party, mounting an ambitious summer production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Since the kickoff in Norcatur, Kansas, in the waning days of June, the troupe has passed through North Dakota, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, and Mississippi; before the tour is over, it will play all previous Cornerstone sites on a twelve-state tour that culminates with stops in three East Coast leviathans: Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

City snobs may applaud efforts to enlighten backwaters with the classics. But city snobs should be forewarned: these are classics with a twist. Part of the troupe's strategy involves altering plays to suit the communities, a practice that began with 1987's That Marmarth Hamlet (Hamlet, Prince of the Dakotas). Rewrites grew more ambitious, more specific: a version of Noel Coward's Hay Fever was reconditioned with the miniscule Mexican border town of Marfa in mind; a fraternal twin of Peer Gynt -Pier Gynt - was custom-made for Eastport, Maine.

Questionable puns aside, Cornerstone insists that adaption is vital to their enterprise. "In our Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Mississippi, the Montagues were played by black actors and the Capulets by whites. We thought that racial division was still very important. Though there's perhaps less overt discrimination, the fact of the matter is that in Port Gibson the black students all go to the public school and the white students to the private military school. People were incredibly brave, really rallied behind us. It was a wonderful show."

For the current tour, Cornerstone has decided to bend the Bard toward an examination of the differences between small towns and big cities. The Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's late romances, is a story of jealousy and mistaken identity that jeopardizes the friendship between Leontes, the King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, as well as the romance between the children of the kings. The tensions between the rulers (and between the kingdoms) mount and intensify before evaporating in a final act filled with disclosures of secret identities. In Cornerstone's version, The Winter's Tale has been recast as a pointed analysis of the United States's social divisions. The play has been transposed to contemporary times: Sicilia and Bohemia have been renamed New Urban and New Rural, U.S.A., respectively, and the kings have become mayors. It's also been turned into a musical. Shakespeare would probably jump out of his seventeenth-century hair.

To investigate the unique nature of small-town America, Cornerstone has stacked the play with ringers, a cast composed not only of the troupe's permanent, professional members, but amateurs borrowed from all residency sites. The Laurence Oliviers and Kenneth Branaghs of the Cornerstone Winter's Tale are Virginia tobacco farmers, West Virginia waitresses, and high school students from the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Nevada. The senior cast member, 77-year-old Bill Parks, is a grocer from London, West Virginia.

Miami, in every way the odd man out on the tour schedule, is the only big city where the company has done a residency. "It was the very beginning of our second season, the fall of 1987, and we really wanted to do something about the AIDS crisis," explains Rauch. Sleeping in cramped rooms on Miami Beach and using a gutted theater in the Carillon Hotel, Cornerstone enlisted AIDS patients and health-care professionals for a performance of the W.H. Auden-Christopher Isherwood collaboration The Dog Beneath the Skin, updating the play's theme of wartime ravage to incorporate the spread of AIDS. Two Miamians who became Cornerstone associates as part of that residency have joined the Winter's Tale tour - teacher Merry Desmond and her seven-year-old daughter Celina, the company's youngest member. "I'm a little nervous about coming back to Miami, but I'm looking forward to it," says Desmond. "I need a city after all these teeny-weeny little towns."

In those teeny-weeny towns, Cornerstone has been lifting its curtain to less-than-capacity houses - you try filling 400-person bleachers in a town of 280. Although the financial losses have been cushioned by the sponsorship of AT&T: OnStage, an "event-marketing" subdivision of the corporate giant, Rauch says he's looking forward to the kind of audience a larger city can provide. With each additional performance, though, he admits he's somewhat wistful.

The Winter's Tale tour is the consummate summary of Cornerstone's young life - a play about the similarities between communities of different sizes, acted by performers from those very communities. But the closure is not only thematic. In the fall, the company will move to Los Angeles to begin a two-and-a-half-year urban residency. "I'd say that this definitely marks the end of this phase for the company," says Rauch.


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