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Blood and Hubris at the Paradise Motel 

The making of Richard Montoya’s Water & Power

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
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There’s a small motel on Sunset Boulevard near Beaudry. One story, ’50s-noir stucco façade, rooms set in a kind of horseshoe configuration — it’s the last of the nonchain hideaways, about half a mile northwest of downtown just beyond a huge construction zone.

“Color TV,” blares the sign above the purple-neon curves of the words “Paradise Motel.” While driving down the boulevard one afternoon in mid-July, I call there to book a room, only to be told there are no vacancies. I know others, with whom I had planned a rendezvous, tried the same the day before and got the same response. So, being in the neighborhood, I pull into the driveway, park, walk across a river of bleach before arriving at the bulletproof glass booth.

“Do you have a room?”

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“Sure. That’ll be $60.”

This must be what they mean by Paradise.

The guy scribbles a receipt, gives me a key to Room No. 2, and I drive away, down the hill to the Mark Taper Forum Annex, where Richard Montoya’s play Water & Power is in rehearsal. He wrote it for his sketch-comedy troupe, Culture Clash. There are a few locales in his play, but most of it is set in a room of the Paradise Motel.

Later that afternoon, as the sun goes down, I return to Paradise, where a photo crew has already set up cables and lamps in Room No. 2. The Culture Clash trio are in costume. Montoya’s in a dapper power suit; diminutive Ric Salinas looks like an injured choloin plaid wool shirt and fingerless black gloves, rolling in a wheelchair up and down the walkways; and shaved-headed Herbert Siguenza appears imposing. Siguenza’s already a big guy, but in a police uniform replete with side arm, he’s completely freaking out the residents and their clients, not to mention the manager, a lean, stoic fellow who emerges from his booth to let me know we have too many people for one room, and we have to leave. When he sees we have no intention of leaving, he offers to return my money if we will please just go away. We tell him we’ll remain inside the room to avoid alarming the residents further, and slip him a $20 bonus for letting us be.

Meanwhile, director Lisa Peterson paces nervously on the sidewalk below, making calls on her cell phone.

Soon, we’re all packed inside, in this closet of a room. Montoya notes that the room’s tight quarters will transform the playing of the scene. The photographer is doing yogalike contortions to capture the trio playing their scene in the real environs. At one point, after a sip of tequila, she gracefully arcs backward, slowly, and keeps going until she knocks her head into a side table, cutting herself.

“A blood sacrifice to the gods,” says Montoya.

The excessive voltage from the photographer’s lights blows a fuse, and suddenly the room is engulfed in darkness — which is exactly what happens in the play — which is why, in the play, the motel room is called “the house of darkness.”

Montoya steps outside. A full moon rises behind the downtown skyline.

On the first day of rehearsals for Water & Power, Montoya spoke of seeing the hill on which the jewel in the crown of L.A. theaters — the Mark Taper Forum — nestles, and dreaming one day of “getting there.” At that time, he was watching from the east side. This is from the west. But the hill is still the hill, and “there” is still there.

The clock to opening night is ticking. Outside the Paradise Motel, the full moon rises higher still.

About a year and a half ago, Montoya, Siguenza and Salinas met with Michael Ritchie, the new artistic director of Center Theater Group. Montoya pitched an idea for a play called Water & Power — to be the third in Culture Clash’s three-play cycle of works about California. Water & Power, when written,would supplement the company’s Zorro in Hell (performed earlier this year at the Berkeley Repertory Theater), about Hollywood’s treatment of the Latino legend; and Chavez Ravine, a docudramedy (a hit at the Mark Taper Forum in 2003) that concerns the political and human costs of building Dodger Stadium.

Montoya knew when he met with Ritchie that Water & Power would be about L.A.’s Latino political machinery and would feature twin brothers nicknamed Water and Power by their father, an employee of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power. With no script and only this vaguest of scenarios to go on, Ritchie made a promise: If Montoya would write that play for Culture Clash, Ritchie would put it on the main stage of the Mark Taper Forum the following season. Water & Power starts previews July 27 at the Taper.

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