Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You

A tale of two artists groups

Comparing Rent, the much-ballyhooed musical that touches down on Tuesday for an eight-performance run in Costa Mesa, with the Hunger Artists' Home for Christmas, a heartwarming children's show about two 1850s orphans looking for a home, is unfair on most counts. But we can't let it slip by unnoticed.

On one hand, you have the fictional characters of Rent: struggling bohemians who toil in anonymity. They're convinced that the squares in the mainstream reject their edgy works on personal and political grounds (most are gay or junkies or otherwise free and liberated). They're frustrated and defiant, determined to shake the establishment through what is apparently lame art no one likes. Because it sucks.

On the other hand, you have the Hunger Artists, a real-life group of theater practitioners in their 20s and 30s, some of whom no doubt fancy themselves bohemian and others who are squarely in the mainstream—kids, houses, jobs, car insurance. Yet these people run one of the best—and smallest—theaters in the county and are doing something far more revolutionary than the artistic wannabes portrayed in Rent: they're actually giving back to the community instead of complaining about how the community gives them nothing.

This Saturday and Sunday, the Hunger Artists perform Home for Christmas, a "sappy, heartwarming kind of Christmas tale," according to writer Larissa Cahill, a Hunger Artist who also runs the Sunday school educational program at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Costa Mesa. For the past two years she has helped organize that church's annual Christmas show. This year, she asked her fellow Hunger Artists to get involved. So Cahill, who wrote Home for Christmas with the help of about 20 of her Sunday school students, is directing the show at the Hunger Artists' Santa Ana theater (on Saturday) and at her church (on Sunday). Any proceeds go to Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a group of devoted volunteers and mentors who play vital roles in placing foster children in good homes.

It's a tame and perhaps unusual choice for the Hunger Artists, who have grown adept at the outrageous, from their hilarious cross-dressing bastardization of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and a white-trash version of Noel Coward's sophisticated drawing-room comedy of marital infidelity, Private Lives to their annual Halloween show, an homage to gore.

But the plot of Home for Christmas sounds hungry enough: a couple of kids run away from a cruel orphanage and seek refuge with a kindly woodworker. A typical Hunger Artists production would include a twist: the woodshop owner would love to have the kids for dinner. Literally. Here, though, all things end happily, and sappily, ever after.

(If you're worried that the Hunger Artists have lost their edge, fear not: the next three shows are Sam Shepard's intense drama Fool for Love; an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's erotic thriller Rear Window; and an original comedy by Adam Martin, The Big Table, featuring, among other things, Godzilla.)

Cahill admits that Home for Christmas isn't Shakespeare. But the play is built around a strange episode in American history, something seemingly distant from normal holiday theatrical fare: orphan trains.

In the 1850s, Cahill explains, a New York pastor came up with an idea. See all these wayward kids running around the streets of New York? Let's round them up, put them on a train and send them to the Midwest to give them good Christian homes.

"It was a good idea in principle, but it didn't pan out," Cahill said. "The kids were supposed to go to good homes, but many wound up being used as slave labor on farms."

Ouch.

But there may be a silver lining in this despicable reminder of public policy gone awry. Maybe we can start a similar organization in contemporary New York City. Find a bunch of wayward, whining artists who are bitter about their lack of respect, ship them to the Midwest and put them to work on a farm. It may not end Rent's apparently endless tour of American suburbia, but it might prevent a similarly plagued artist from producing something just as bad.

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS at the Hunger Artists Theatre and at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church; RENT at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. See Theater listings in Calendar for more details.

 
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