Welcome to Cornerstone, the fictional cult-slash-evil corporation-slash-motivational-engagement from which Nothing Without a Company’s immersive show derives its name. Consideration Managers and excited volunteers shout nonsensical self-improvement jargon, accompanied by appropriately absurd gestures. “Ballast,” mutters Nestor (Kyle Mundil), an all-too-earnest recruit, in hopes of bringing balance to his collapsing mental health.
A welcoming committee. Smiles, smiles, smiles. Here, fill out this form.
Fresh members and higher-ups eager to engage and initiate us in the organization lie through their teeth, grit and grin like wolves, and play the enthusiasm up to ten. The clear superficiality belies sinister motivations and the audience feels that dissociation. We are interacting with masks, except for a few faithful who are maybe not as faithful as we’d think. The cracks show.
This dissonance between the mask and the authentic is the thematic heart of “Cornerstone”: restricted areas, muted arguments between the powerful, secrecy insinuating itself through the space like poison. The cast alienates, always circling the conversation back to how Cornerstone changed them. Our piano wire spines tighten. The production team has cleverly clashed the physical reality of the gallery with the decisive falseness of the cast to fracture our spatial experience from our social experience.
However, when the charms and limitations of the superficial break down, something substantial must be there to give meaning to what was previously dark and dangerous. Instead, “Cornerstone” devolves into surface melodrama and the heightened emotions of interlopers disengages the well-earned immersion. Suddenly, we’re no longer in Cornerstone. We’re in “Cornerstone.” Not intrinsically a bad choice, but this twisty “plot” receives priority over the stories already implicit in the space. Dramatic catharsis and an obvious righteousness comes at the cost of the characters.
“Drink the Kool-Aid” is an idiom of idealistic extremism because the Jonestown massacre incited absolute discomfort from us. The tragedy “Cornerstone” is always on the edge of, that of the desperate seeking hope, solace, community from a nest of persuasive wasps, is drowned by the show’s desire to illustrate the immorality of that which already repulses us. (Jay Van Ort)
Nothing Without a Company at Artspace 8, 900 North Michigan, nothingwithoutacompany.org. $25-$30. Through April 26.