Los Angeles Theater Review: LUNCH LADY COURAGE (Cornerstone at Cocoanut Grove Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on March 31, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

FOOD FIGHT

Using Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children (1939) as a template, writer Peter Howard has created a wartime tale about the need to survive in challenging times. But the war isn’t an overseas conflict. It is one that takes place in a school cafeteria, where Ana, a.k.a. Lunch Lady Courage, has arrived to provide sustenance for a teenage population which isn’t conditioned by parents and corporate America to consume healthy food (the disconcertingly high rate of teenage obesity will attest to that). Plus, she has to deal with the usual budgetary deficits, and a well-intentioned teacher named Miss, who sells Cheetos to kids as a way to raise money for a poor mother.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema L.A. review of Cornerstone's "Lunch Lady Courage."The Hunger Cycle – Cornerstone Theater Company’s series of nine world premiere plays exploring hunger, justice, and food equity issues – included one of my favorite shows of last year: the immensely satisfying Café Vida, which played at LATC. Lunch Lady uses a smattering of Equity actors and features students from Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA). Thus, the germane location for Howard’s agitprop-styled script is the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus (K-12, 4200 students), which sits on the site where RFK was assassinated: that of the famed and now demolished Ambassador Hotel. In stark contrast to the campus’ institutional design, sections of the old resort destination have been incorporated within the school: The Café Ambassador coffee shop is now the Faculty Lounge; the Embassy Ballroom is now the library; and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which hosted the Academy Awards in the 30s and 40s, is now a gorgeous 584-seat theater which maintains the same Moroccan-themed architectural elements (view a panorama shot here).

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema L.A. review of Cornerstone's "Lunch Lady Courage."Lunch Lady is actually more educational than agitative, but Chris Anthony efficiently directs her cast in the style of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt – or “V-effekt” – in which the fourth wall is consistently broken. Before we even enter the theater, three cafeteria workers (Joel Jimenez, Jasmine Rosales, and real-life Middle School food service employee Frank Boeheim) introduce the play and will act as a semi-Greek Chorus. Ana (Page Leong) begins her new food-preparation job by taking on kids who vend donuts and chocolate to fund school projects. Once we move into the theater, the play vacillates in effectiveness as Ana continues to tackle nutrition issues even as she contends with the problems of her own three children: Leaf (Alberto Hernandez), an18-year-old who is chomping-at-the-bit to serve his country; Queso (David Toledo), one of those floundering high school kids who is still willing to learn; and Katrina (Marilin Lopez-Bermuda), an adolescent girl who, like Brecht’s character Kattrin, is mute.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema L.A. review of Cornerstone's "Lunch Lady Courage."Earnestness goes a long way in this production, but it doesn’t always make up for the fact that this well-written but issue-drenched evening feels more preachy than rabble-rousing. Following the lead of Epic Theatre, a few songs are peppered in the play to highlight its themes – Gabe Lopez offers some serviceable tunes, gamely executed by an infectious cast, but it is Sarah Leddy’s adorable choreography which truly elucidates the joy of youth. Bahni Turpin gives a remarkably empathetic performance as Miss, the true-to-life dream teacher who keeps getting the pink slip even as she inspires students to be better citizens.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema L.A. review of Cornerstone's "Lunch Lady Courage."An enormous amount of work went into this production, and some information only resonated because it came courtesy of the show (i.e., California spends nearly seven times more on its prison inmates than on its K-12 students). As with the theater of Brecht, the story can take a back seat to the didacticism. The experience of watching Lunch Lady Courage is estranging and ultimately feels like an extraordinarily well-produced amateur talent show rather than Theater of Change. But that’s the thing that separates Cornerstone from other theater. Certainly they are out to tell a story, but the main goal is to utilize members of the community which is being portrayed and disseminate pertinent information in an imaginative way. And in that they succeed wholeheartedly.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema L.A. review of Cornerstone's "Lunch Lady Courage."photos by Kevin Michael Campbell

Lunch Lady Courage
Cornerstone Theater Company at the Cocoanut Grove Theater
Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, 701 S. Catalina St.
created in partnership with Los Angeles High School of the Arts
scheduled to end on April 13, 2013
for tickets, which are Pay-What-You-Can, visit http://www.cornerstonetheater.org

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema L.A. review of Cornerstone's "Lunch Lady Courage."

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine Avila April 5, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Saw the show yesterday and enjoyed it very much.

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Crystal Jones April 6, 2013 at 9:06 pm

I saw the play yesterday at Robert F. Kennedy School in the Cocoanut Theater. This was an awesome play. The children did an excellent job on their performance. I really enjoyed it very much.

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13 carrots April 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

Very impressed by the acting and stage presence of these young actors!

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