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In Cornerstone Theater's 'Ghost Town,' glimpses of Venice past, present and future

In Cornerstone Theater's 'Ghost Town,' glimpses of Venice past, present and future
Venice resident Zelda (Bahni Turpin) with her Bungalow (Shishir Kurup), left, and Craftsman (Raphael “Spud” Anderson) in Cornerstone Theater's "Ghost Town." (Kevin Michael Campbell)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Cornerstone Theater Company. Judging by "Ghost Town," which premiered at Oakwood Recreation Center in Venice over the weekend, the trailblazing troupe remains at the vanguard of community-based theatrical exploration.

Created in collaboration with community members and Cornerstone's Institute Summer Residency, "Ghost Town" follows the time-tested approach of learning about a locale from within. Professional artists and residents were brought together to fashion an original work drawn from the area's topography, history and issues.

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That is certainly the case with "Ghost Town," equal parts San Francisco Mime Troupe, Chautauqua Circuit tent show, chamber of commerce symposium and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Playwright Juliette Carrillo's sparely effective scenario concerned longtime Venetian Zelda (Bahni Turpin, vivid as ever) and her beloved Bungalow (represented by Shishir Kurup, who composed the serviceable tunes). After seemingly benign house hunter Vivian (Page Leong, having a field day) offered big bucks for Bungalow, ambivalent Zelda experienced three "Christmas Carol"-esque dreams of Venice past, present and future.

Aided by spot-on designers, director Rebecca Novick showed a clear-eyed grasp of company ethos. Her huge, diverse cast pulled historical facts, hard present-day truths and a proactive vision toward a climactic faceoff between development-welcoming hipsters and tradition-supporting hippies.

It was a jam-packed hour and 20 minutes that incorporated both the homeless and high-concept bistros. At Saturday night's post-show talk-back, when the audience was asked what Venice locals found missing, one person replied, "Where were the politicians?" to general assent. Yet the engaging merger of art and artlessness, goofy spontaneity and acute purpose was its own reward.

In the foreground, from left, Tala Kurup, Page Leong, Bahni Turpin, Imogen Wanlass and Elodia Honigstein, with other cast members of "Ghost Town."
In the foreground, from left, Tala Kurup, Page Leong, Bahni Turpin, Imogen Wanlass and Elodia Honigstein, with other cast members of "Ghost Town." (Kevin Michael Campbell)

Company stalwarts Turpin and Leong warranted their own series. Kurup and fellow domiciles Craftsman (Raphael "Spud" Anderson), Box Modern (Sarah Gaboury) and Low Income 1 and 2 (Angela "Angel" Collins and Javi Contreras, respectively) turned designer Lynn Jeffries' witty headgear into incisive demographic statements.

And so went the roster: Dov Rudnick as Venice founder Abbot Kinney, Shane Norman and Jason Simms as his allies, Preston Newman O'Connell as cosmic Gondolier, and Ernestine Anderson and Jolie Nichole Brazile as older and younger versions of a venerable civic activist.

"Ghost Town," staged for just one weekend, seemed a comprehensive example of what makes Cornerstone a cultural resource and treasure.

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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