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Montoya swipes his hand through his hair and sighs, “Anglo-Jewish tenant plays are taken seriously, but when we do our play, we get, ‘Tell me it’s going to be funny.’ ”
He describes the play’s origins. “Lisa [Peterson] and I were drinking when we saw [Assemblyman] Gil Cedillo pull up in a Town Car, and Lisa said, ‘That’s your new play. That’s power. Follow it.’ ”
Peterson adds, “The plan has always been to go without an intermission, partly because it’s a compressed tale. We’re still struggling to get it to a length we can do comfortably.”
The first read-through takes about two hours and 10 minutes. Peterson then closes the rehearsal to all but Montoya, Glore and the stage managers for more script work.
The next day, Peterson works with the cast around a table. Norte/Sur’s prologue, introducing the brothers, had spun from references to Maya theology to West Valley gringos to the MTA’s Gold Line. Now it’s filtered down to the essences of Greek tragedy. To paraphrase: Welcome to the dark house, it’s raining cats and dogs, the lords of death are back in town, and here’s a pair of brothers I want you to meet.
Siguenza complains, “The lords of death are back in town? They’re everywhere! How can they be back in town?”
“I think it’s fine, guys,” Montoya replies with a slight edge. “Let’s just let it live for a day.”
Peterson asks Glore, “Do we know enough? Do we get enough information? That’s the question now.” Montoya offers to look at his own character’s BlackBerry phone calls “because they’re feeling a bit long with all these other cuts.”
Peterson directs Siguenza courteously, impulsively, sometimes reversing herself. Her eyes and ears track for problems, for contradictions, for establishing story points with just the right stress: She reads back Siguenza’s line about the police coming after a renegade cop: “ ‘They come hard for their own’ — please land on that,” she asks. The actor’s emphasis helps determine which lines stay and which go.
The process is about making incremental changes — hundreds of them — like the art of sanding a fine piece of furniture, smoothing, so that in the light, the textures and the polish, carefully applied, will mesmerize.
Montoya is getting agitated, feeling some of the old version is better: “We have to go through it in the careful fashion we went through this morning — because some of that version had good stuff in it, some of the new version took a step forward and some of it didn’t.”
A section is on the chopping block — in which the father threateningly warns his sons never to laugh at poor people, and Rocha, who plays the father, feels uneasy about the pending cut.
“The kid is so smart, he can turn his father around, and that’s the nice quality of the section we’re thinking about cutting.”
Adds Montoya, “Yes, I’m not happy about that cut.”
“I think the section about not laughing at poor people is beside the point,” Peterson says, adjusting her glasses. “The family is poor. It feels off the point. It’s no longer about instilling this positive virtue in the boys. It seems stronger to me that you boys will respect everybody, if they’re rich or poor, that’s the lesson.”
Rocha, however, is unconvinced. “I like the threat of beating up the kids if they disrespect the poor.”
Peterson stays on course, gently, firmly. “Characterwise, I get what you’re saying, but you’re landing on a point that’s not the point of the story. I’m suggesting ending with the lesson of respecting everybody, but I don’t know how Richard will feel about that.”
After working it through, Rocha concedes, “You’re right. It flows better that way. The point is made. It’s about respect. When you’re in a gym, boxing, you have to respect the other guy, or he’s going to kick the shit out of you.”
During all this, Montoya has been flipping through stacks of drafts and inputting changes into a laptop: “Thanks, guys. This really needs all hands on deck, because there are three versions right now.”
Throughout the first week, Montoya’s Culture Clash partners, Siguenza and Salinas, don’t display Montoya’s impulse for wisecracking when on their feet during rehearsals. They’re also more settled in life, with wives and children. But they’re not under the same kind of pressure as Montoya. They don’t have to constantly rewrite the very play they have to perform in less than a month. During lunch breaks, Montoya disappears to massage the material. On the July Fourth holiday, when the cast and crew are at barbecues and with family, Montoya holes up in his Angeleno Heights bungalow, rewriting.
He sends an Independence Day e-mail to cast and crew: “Several things hit me yesterday: One was this. I was missing with a certain anger all that gestation we had with Chavez. We are basically doing our development now and the pressure on me to marshal the notes and script together in this shortened rehearsal period is right at that point where I feel (after this draft) I have done what I can do. All that I can do . . . I’m locking her down, folks. Happy Fourth. You can tell me about it.”