Mozart's final opera, "The Magic Flute," is not only one of the most frequently revived and crowd-pleasing of his works, but also possibly the most difficult to summarize.
Prince Tamino's arduous quest across a mythical landscape, mingling elements from fairy tales and laced with the Masonic ideals of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, has no doubt been the despair of those writing plot synpsoses.
Cornerstone Theater puts its own spin on this story in "Magic Fruit," the final installment in the company's Hunger Cycle, nine plays exploring hunger and food equity in California today. "Magic Fruit" is a collaboration between Cornerstone artists and the various communities they've worked with in the last six years: former gang members, the homeless, recovering addicts, urban and rural farmers and cafeteria workers, among others.
Taking on climate change, playwright Michael John Garcés has transposed "The Magic Flute" to a hellish Los Angeles of the near-future, a wasteland blighted by drought and stalked by a mysterious monster. This creature (a screen projection, one of many in Sean Cawelti's dazzling design) is about to swallow up ex-gang member Tami (Christina Frias) and her friend Kiko (Rachael Portillo) when three cheerful urban farmers intervene. They are employees of the Queen of the Rain, a gorgeous and fearsome goddess with a silver face and hair of clouds (Page Leong) who soon arrives to explain, in tones rendered thunderous by sound designer John Nobori, why the Earth is doomed: Her heart has been stolen.
To recover the queen's heart, the farmers send Tami and her new friend, Pageni (played by an actor named Courage), a mysterious, charming Native American collector of birds (adorable stick puppets designed by Lynn Jeffries and Tima Lotah Link). Instead of a magic flute, Tami and Pageni are given a magic fork and spoon, which provide tantalizing tastes of fresh produce.
It turns out that the Queen's heart, actually a young woman named Corazon (Bethany Nava), is being held captive by the evil Sarastro Corporation, a manufacturer of synthetic foods. One of its executives, Mondiablo (Peter Howard), has invented a "waterless seed" that he plans to use to take over the company, and his recipe requires Corazon's blood. But Sarastro, represented by people dressed in coordinating white and green (the wonderful costumes are by Meghan E. Healey), discovers his plan and chases him away — only to steal his malevolent idea.
And that's only part of the story of "Magic Fruit." At one point, Tami's quest lands her inside a video game. Later she finds herself on a shadowy urban skid row and, succumbing to despair, takes drugs. (Geoff Korf's lighting design is evocative throughout.) From time to time she is menaced by a giant talking Flamin' Hot Cheeto (Lee Maupin), the apotheosis of junk food. It's all pretty trippy, and although it doesn't always make much logical sense, the playful and imaginative touches keep us entertained.
When composing "The Magic Flute," Mozart wrote music for trained opera singers as well as actors with little experience. With original songs by Randall Robert Tico, "Magic Fruit" is similarly designed for performers with a range of abilities.
Some actors here are making their stage debuts. Others got involved at various points during the Hunger Cycle. Still others have been part of Cornerstone since it was founded 30 years ago. Garcés' script and Shishir Kurup's direction gracefully accommodate these different levels.
Ensemble members tend to deliver their speeches in unison. Other players shine in solo numbers — such as Mondiablo's hammy, jazzy defense of villainy, which would not feel out of place in a Rankin/Bass TV Christmas special.
It's such a quirky bag of fun that every odd piece fits right in.
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Where: Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday.
Tickets: $20 suggested (pay what you can)
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes