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.
So in Richard Montoya’s mess of a new play, which contains the germ of a beautiful idea and which just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, there are dreams, and then there are dreams.
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.
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.
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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