Thursday, January 07, 2010

How Bro Can You Go?

Sure Palestine, New Mexico is a bit of a mess, but what play with that title couldn't be? Currently running at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, PNM is the latest creation of Culture Clash, the brilliant Chicano theater threesome now celebrating their 25th anniversary together. Anybody who has followed Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza over the years knows their ambitions keep growing, as they've moved from outlandish, socially conscious sketch comedy to more observational, interview-based works, to their more recent plays like Chavez Ravine and Water & Power, still full of madcap humor while addressing in more traditional dramatic form what makes Los Angeles Los Angeles (hint: see linguistic root of the town's name). Palestine, New Mexico expands their reach even further, for that red-rocked desert set is at times an Indian reservation and at others Afghanistan, places of all sorts of heat that the play tries to air out.

That said, the play is informed by one of the most infamous cries ever uttered in LA, "Can we all just get along?" Of course, everyone made fun of Rodney King for that and it's easy to bat the seemingly simple-minded plea about with our cynicism sticks--silly fools, of course we can't, we're nasty, self-serving humans. That's why Culture Clash's humor is so important--it makes it clear that they want their message of brotherly and sisterly love while having some fun with it, too. But it means something this play is the first for CC in which they are bit players--the focus is clearly on Kirsten Potter as Capt. Catherine Siler, a soldier desperate to figure out why PFC Birdsong, a man in her platoon, died. She goes to his res (short for reservation) for answers, and ends up finding ones about herself, too, with help from a crazy cast of characters and a tongue-in-cheek over the top peyote dream quest starring a cactus golem, among other hallucinations. Even stalwart Native American activist and actor Russell Means shows up, in his first play, to portray Birdsong's father and the chief of the tribe. Talk about gravity amidst the levity.

I also want to defend the part of the play that seems to shtick in other critics' throats--when the CC trio come out as old VFW geezers and run through a series of jokes you expect to hear rimshots after. First, it is a pretty funny sequence, so you have to give them that--you can feel their joy in trying to put over some old chestnuts. Second, at this point CC are the vets in the play, so to suggest they are just for laughs is relatively pointed self-criticism. Third, the play will end with a coffin and a kaddish (multi-faith division). There's a dead young man who just wanted peace in there. Who are we to judge anything as ridiculous in the face of that.

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2:24 PM  

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