By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When U.S. Army Captain Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) stumbles into “Bumfuck” — a New Mexico Indian reservation — she’s already tripping, exhausted from crossing the desert, dehydrated and addicted to her now-terminated prescription meds for pain and stress. And that’s before she drinks a peyote-laced beverage given her by one of the locals.
Against the expansive red-rock panorama of Rachel Hauck’s outdoor set, the Army captain can’t quite tell which desert she’s in, whether in Afghanistan, from whence she came, or in the American Southwest, to which she’s arrived for the purpose of delivering a message to the father of a soldier named Birdsong (Justin Rain), who served in her platoon. She retrieved the note from his pocket after he was killed in Afghanistan during an attempted mediation that spun out of control. Birdsong’s ghost haunts Captain Siler, and we too see the uniformed GI slithering across the stage and occasionally through the theater’s aisles. Birdsong’s father (Russell Means) is the tribal chief on the “rez.”
Chief Birdsong, however, isn’t an easy guy to find. And in the devil’s punch bowl where the action unfolds, as Captain Siler gazes up at the canyon rim, she sees — as do we — the visage of a mosque looming over an old water tower. (Alexander V. Nichols does lighting and projection design.) So if she’s tripping, we’re right there with her, in the “land of magical realism.”
In the blink of an eye, there appears on that rim a posse of gun-toting natives. Sporting a fedora and bearing a weapon the size of which would have weighed down the Terminator, Bronson (Ric Salinas) — yes, Bronson is a joke on Charles Bronson — warns the fed that she’s trespassing on the grounds of a sovereign nation, and that he has the right to shoot on sight. But Siler’s no shrinking violet. Bronson announces that the chief won’t see her because he’s so busy — presumably overseeing the funeral preparations for his son, whose corpse is in transit from Dover Air Force Base.
So begins Montoya’s 90-minute mystery (without intermission), which hangs on the question of what happened to the native son in Afghanistan, sprinkled with some gentle parody of spaghetti westerns, with some jokes thrown in about the local Dairy Queen, Denny’s, onion rings and cholesterol levels. The main question surrounding Birdsong’s death is amped up with gossip of treason, and with the unraveling mystery of what the private actually did in his final hours, who may have ambushed him, and whether or not there’s a discrepancy with what was reported.
Over those 90 minutes, I tracked at least four plays, each in different styles. With the references to Birdsong’s funeral at dawn, we’re led to believe that we’re in the land of Aristotle’s Poetics, an ancient rule book for plays that describes a taut action unfolding as the clock ticks — sort of like the TV series 48 Hours. That’s a ruse that leads to the growing frustration with this play. In fact, Captain Siler’s inquiry has scant connection to the funeral; there is no clock ticking for her to obtain the information she seeks. Her inquiry could plausibly last months, since she’s functioning as a detective. These questions won’t disappear once Birdsong is laid to rest.
The reason for her intense curiosity hangs in the desert ether, as does the risk for her seeking such a truth. Is she part of an Army investigation committee? Does that committee really want to know the truth, or is its agenda to distort it? These issues do have something to do with our Pat Tillman era.
Were these questions addressed, they might provide some plot twists and turns that rev up the dramatic tension of a murder mystery. Instead, Captain Siler merely goes around seeking individuals such as “Suarez” (a GI from a rival tribe who served with Birdsong) and of course the chief, all from some generalized sense of need that stems, perhaps, from her grief over cradling too many soldiers in their dying moments. She has one melodramatic speech to that effect in the manner of a telenovela, which is the play’s second style. Because we’re in a dream of sorts — the play’s third style — both Suarez and the chief magically and conveniently appear, not from the intricate mechanics of a mystery but from the whims of a dream or, to be more precise, because the playwright felt like it. In his mix of styles, it’s as though Montoya takes a ’57 Chevy onto the stage, sticks a sail and a pair of wings on it and spends the rest of the play having his actors and director (Lisa Peterson) blow very hard in that direction, in hopes that the contraption might at least roll for a bit, even if it can’t fly.