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
Add to the three aforementioned styles the kind of slapstick that sketch-comedy troupe Culture Clash (Montoya, Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) does so well. Montoya wrote this play for his company, who, along with 11 other performers, all appear in it. In a scene that recalls a blend of the Mexican comedian Cantinflas with Abbot and Costello, a doltish security guard named Farmer (Siguenza) rolls in on a golf cart that sports New Mexico plates. He’s a self-important idiot and Siguenza, with his belly stretching the buttons of his shirt, and an expression of luminous vacancy, reveals the clown traditions that gave this troupe its reputation. I don’t know how an actor uses his eyes to show that nobody’s home, but Siguenza pulls it off masterfully. Montoya also has a pleasing turn as wisecracking “information officer” Top Hat, who squeals in on a bicycle — an outsider and “Rhodes Scholar from East L.A. College” now in his 27th year of studies.
This is very funny stuff, which crashes into the style of Captain Siler’s earnest meeting with Birdsong’s widow (nicely played by Julia Jones). One flashback depicts Birdsong attempting an unauthorized mediation with the Taliban, based on their common legacy of tribes. Therein lies the charge of treason, and the play’s most salient and profound observation of the role clans have always played in the governance of the world. It also brings to the fore the eternal paradoxes of waging peace among warring clans. In that paradox lies the play’s philosophical and emotional soul, which includes the role of Judaism hidden in the New Mexico desert. The play’s final rite is an idyllic resolution to the woes of the world or, to be less polite, a fake, happy ending. Perhaps that too is being justified by magic realism, but just because something arrives in a dream doesn’t necessarily make it true — or even plausible.
What Palestine, New Mexico is doing on the Taper main stage, at this point, can be explained by the sketch-comedy roots of Culture Clash, and the willingness of artistic directors such as Michael Ritchie at our Center Theatre Group, and Bill Rausch at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to sign off on Montoya’s plays before they’re written, based on the company’s record. (The success of Montoya’s Water & Power at the Taper in 2006 is part of that record, and Montoya is now writing a history play called American Night — another “fever dream” scheduled to open in Oregon later in 2010.)
The plight of regional theaters developing plays to death — plays shaped by committees of dramaturgs who savage the author’s original intent, thus destroying the chances of a play actually appearing on the stage — has been much discussed. Palestine, New Mexico is the antithesis of that concept, green-lighting an idea without a script and then hoping for the best, based on a company’s sketch-comedy instincts and skills. The former is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This is throwing the baby into the bathwater. In either case, the baby doesn’t fare very well.
PALESTINE, NEW MEXICO | By RICHARD MONTOYA FOR CULTURE CLASH | Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. | Through Jan. 24 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org