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Blood and Hubris at the Paradise Motel

Water pressure: Montoya clutches Siguenza, as Salinas looks on. (Photography by Elizabeth Perrin)

Water pressure: Montoya clutches Siguenza, as Salinas looks on. (Photography by Elizabeth Perrin)

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?”

“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.

Ritchie’s pledge to produce Montoya’s play on the basis of an unwritten idea offers an audacious challenge to a prevalent model of new-play development in America’s theaters. Dramaturge John Glore, who was present when Ritchie made his promise, says he hasn’t seen such a gamble in all his years of viewing the scene from Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory — a theater nationally renowned for its new-play development, where Glore currently serves as associate artistic director.

Glore says that this project’s biggest departure from other Culture Clash shows is that Montoya is flying solo as its writer. It’s also the darkest show from a troupe known for decorating serious ideas with cross-dressing and other sketch-comedy gags. Montoya’s early impulse was to attach the story to the scandals around LAPD’s Rampart Division. “It didn’t take him long to realize that would handcuff him,” Glore says.

Knowing how many jokes to include, and how they serve the story and affect the tone, has been one of the daunting challenges of the development process.

“Richard’s process is one of throwing everything on the page and then whittling it away,” says Glore. “The first draft was 180 pages and would have played three hours. Though structurally, it’s had the same general shape all along.”

The play’s main story takes place on a stormy night in contemporary L.A. A prologue by an angel named Norte/Sur (Ric Salinas), a paraplegic vato in a wheelchair, introduces us to “the dark house,” a seedy room in the Paradise Motel. In that room, the twin brothers Water and Power crash into each other.

Water (Montoya) is a senator who's just received a text message that his rogue-cop brother, Power (Herbert Siguenza), is in trouble. The senator, in a shiny suit and with a BlackBerry that rings through the night (he’s lobbying for passage of a clean-air/green-space bill for East L.A. that’s up for a vote the next day), stumbles into the room from the rain to discover his hulking, bloodstained sibling deranged from tequila and cocaine, lounging on a bed that’s draped in assault weapons and items removed from city storage.

“Do not remove from Evidence Room,” the senator reads out loud from one of the packages, before remarking, “This would be a big minus.”

“It’s okay, as long as you bring it back,” the cop replies. “It’s like Netflix down there.”

In flashbacks, the brothers’ father (Winston J. Rocha) reminds the boys — both played by 12-year-old Moises Arias — that they were born “between the thunder and the lightning.”

Through waves of poeticism, cracks about local politicos and tart sarcasm, the story of brotherly love unfolds — part noir thriller, part Greek tragedy: two brothers trying to save each other from the abyss of realpolitik, men who are opposites and complements, and who, in tandem, symbolize the engine that drives city politics.

A defining image is from the funeral of Miguel Contreras, the L.A. County Federation of Labor leader whose burial, like that of Cesar Chavez before him, had janitors, field hands and corporate executives standing side by side in respect. Such respect inspires the senator, who finds his own actions falling short of social principles that he learned from his father.

Power will have nothing to do with such sentimentality: “Fuck the little guy. Fuck Cesar Chavez. Fuck Dad,” he taunts his brother in a moment of bluster.

Alluding to corruption scandals across the state, Montoya says his play sounds a note of caution for the new Latino power base in Los Angeles. (See accompanying article, “A $4 Million Misunderstanding,” on the Los Angeles Theater Center.)

With the exception of child actor Arias, the actors each play only one role — unlike in Chavez Ravine, where multiple role-playing added to the hilarity. And though Water & Power employs Montoya’s prodigious knowledge of local and state politics (Montoya and Siguenza were both given appointments as city commissioners by Mayor Villaraigosa), this is not a docudrama built on anthropological and historical research, as were Zorro and Chavez Ravine. Rather, Water & Power is a serious-hearted fiction sprung somewhat from newspaper articles that have appeared in the past 15 months but mostly from the depths of Montoya’s personal experiences and his careening, buoyant imagination.

Michael Ritchie’s play-development philosophy has either evolved or become more clearly articulated since he took considerable heatfor dismantling the Taper’s minority playwriting labs (including a lab for the disabled) two years ago, shortly after taking over CTG from the retiring Gordon Davidson. At that time, Ritchie complained that the in-house labs weren’t turning out producible plays, while those labs’ directors argued that generating plays was never the primary purpose.

Unlike Davidson, Ritchie hasn’t the temperament for the meandering and often fruitless process of new-play development. “Gordon is a director with a gift for helping bring plays to the page,” Ritchie told the Weekly. “I’m a producer with three theaters to program [the Taper, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas]. I have to get plays to the stage.”

Ritchie says he’s reluctant to commission or develop a play unless he has serious plans to produce it.

With his hardball do-it-or-dump-it philosophy, Ritchie has shifted the Taper’s emphasis away from such lab programs that wait to harvest a producible fourth play after a writer-in-residence has submitted three undoable ones.

“Sometimes you have to give resources to artistic support,” Ritchie explains. “But at the Taper, there’s been a shift in the amount of resources that go toward that leg of development.” To put it more bluntly, he’d prefer that playwrights leave the building until they bring in something he can imagine producing.

In making his early pledge to present Water & Power, Ritchie says he had faith that Montoya would come up with a saleable play. There’s faith, and then there’s faith based on precedence: Culture Clash’s successful affiliations with regional theaters include the Taper, Berkeley Repertory Theater, South Coast Repertory, Boston’s Huntington Theater, Houston’s Alley Theater, Syracuse Stage, Yale Repertory and the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The troupe also has a reputation for funny, caustic and thoughtful profiles of American cities — Miami in Radio Mambo (1995); San Diego in Bordertown (1998); New York in Nuyorican Stories (1999); Washington, D.C., in Anthems: Culture Clash in the District (2002); and Los Angelesin Chavez Ravine (2003).

There are other reasons for Ritchie’s faith: No local-theater watcher will forget the sight of new crowds from places like Alhambra, Chino and Montebello pouring into the Taper for Chavez Ravine. Industry types may also recall the sizzling box-office numbers for Chavez Ravine that ran in Variety. Also, like Chavez Ravine, Water & Power is directed by Peterson with Glore in place as dramaturge.

However, there may be an artistic affinity between Ritchie and Culture Clash that runs deeper than Ritchie’s hopes for robust ticket sales. Though couched in the lingo of new-play development, Ritchie’s dismantling of the Taper’s minority playwriting labs was actually a stinging slap in the face of ’80s identity politics. (The labs were established by Davidson to explore and expose the impact of stereotypes, while depicting the world through lesser-known ethnic perspectives.)

Culture Clash has similarly disparaged the kind of identity-driven humor that, as part of a social agenda, sometimes chafes against using stereotypes. Though Culture Clash may have been weaned on the milk of that humor and retains its leftist politics, the company has been steadily reaching for broader audiences by adopting an increasingly anarchistic, politically incorrect satire that, like traditional Italian commedia, derives from stereotypes and pokes fun at all sides in political arguments.

In 1984, curator Rene Yanez came up with the then-novel idea of Latino sketch comedy for his Galería de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District. He brought together Monica Palacios, Marga Gomez, Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas and essayist/humorist Jose Antonio Burciaga. The troupe would typically perform in venues from San Francisco to Sacramento. The women soon fell away, and Burciaga later died. The remaining trio make up the current membership of Culture Clash.

Throughout the early rehearsals of Water & Power,Montoya — the company’s handsome leading player and unofficial spokesperson — occasionally goofs off by parading his senator with a swishy stride and slightly limp wrists, adding a muted lisp and a subtly accentuated nasality to some exaggerated indignation, which he portrays with a snap of his head and a sharp inhale. This is not his character in the play; he’s just amusing himself with one of many spontaneous parodies. One can see how lesbian comedians like Gomez and Palacios, who have always challenged gay stereotypes, might have been disgruntled by Montoya’s clowning.

“We’d have meetings and share ideas for sketches,” Palacios told the Weekly in 2004. “Maybe it seemed sexist — the content of the sketches. We had different ideas of what was funny, what was comedy.”

One can also see from the sheer technical brilliance of Montoya’s riffs why Culture Clash draws crowds.

Though Ritchie’s pledge to produce Water & Power on the basis of one pitch and no script seems on the surface like a cavalier response to the normally grinding process of new-play development, there has actually been plenty of grinding. Peterson and, to a lesser extent, Glore, have been following Culture Clash around the country for readings while Montoya has been turning out drafts throughout the past year.

Montoya, Peterson and Glore were still cobbling together a new draft from various versions — “the Houston draft,” “the Berkeley draft” — during the first week of rehearsals at the Taper. Montoya tells me of a dream he had — that he had died and Peterson was giving a eulogy over his coffin, reading from the script of Water & Power. “Here, I must refer to the Berkeley draft,” Peterson said in the dream.

“In March, I went up with them to Berkeley, where they were doing Zorro,” Peterson explains in the Taper Annex during a lunch break. “We worked very hard in those five days to streamline. Michael [Ritchie] came up for that. We wanted to prove to Michael it could work.”

Richard Montoya grew up in the ’60s with four brothers and one sister in the small rural town of Wheatland, about 60 miles north of Sacramento.

“I was a very quiet kid. My mom says I didn’t talk or walk until I was three. All my brothers are, like, 6-footers, star athletes.”

The central family dynamic, Montoya says, was the competition for approval. His father, José, was a high school teacher and political activist who also worked in the fields where hops are grown for beer.

“He’d come home after a hard day’s work, we’d open his beer and take swigs, which was fine with him, but not so fine with Mom,” Montoya remembers. “He was always trying to instill old-school stuff, clean clothes and shiny shoes.”

These very traits have worked their way into Water and Power’s father, who gives his socially awkward son, Power, lessons in how to attract girls by holding a jacket in just the right fold across the arm but never wearing it.José’s stern side is also in the play.

“When my dad taught me to ride my bike, I smashed my nuts on the handlebars, but he wouldn’t let me get off until I learned how to ride it,” recalls Montoya. “Even my mom was screaming, ‘Get the boy off the bike!’ ”

The father in Water & Power trains his sons to box against each other, to cheat, to ambush, to prepare for the blows and betrayals and surprises of life, to survive.

Montoya says that, despite similarities, his own father was actually gentler than the father in his play, possibly because the play has a more dangerous, urban-barrio setting than where Montoya grew up.

“I couldn’t play baseball for crap, so he yanked me from the Little League because he didn’t want me to get hurt on the baseball field. The part that I’m grafting onto Water & Power is the competitive nature of the boys, everyone wanting the approval.”

When I remind Montoya of his irrepressible bursts of clowning in rehearsals, as though they emanate from some formative survival mechanism and an ingrained hunger for the approval of laughter, he’s genuinely surprised. “Do I really do that? Oh, no.”

On the afternoon of June 27, the first day of rehearsals, the cast and crew gather around a series of large rectangular tables in the Taper Annex. “I made a promise a year and a half ago,” Ritchie says to his staff before rehearsals begin. “And I’ve kept that promise.”He then turns to Montoya and says jokingly, or not: “Now don’t fuck it up.”

Ritchie’s investment in Montoya is a high-stakes gamble given the prestige of the Taper and the costs of producing work there: upward of $500,000 per show. Even under the old Broadway system of the ’30s and ’40s, before the era of endlessly rewriting new stage plays, there were out-of-town tryouts in Boston or Philadelphia. And though Los Angeles is not New York, the national theater magazines are watching. There’s no escaping or postponing the opening-night glare of attention.

Lisa Peterson stands behind a chair and, from the fastidiousness with which she straightens her red sweatjacket that hangs on the chair’s metal back, it’s clear she’s the director.

I start to ask Peterson if she was concerned that Ritchie might renege on his commitment to produce the play, but before I can finish the question, Peterson is already nodding. “Yes, I was worried. Berkeley was a proving ground.”

As the child actor and his understudy mark their parts in their scripts with yellow markers, and Dakin Matthews (playing a demonic old lobbyist) sits attentively — looking slightly disheveled in shorts, sandals and silver hair that careens wildly after escaping the restraint of a cap — Peterson explains that Water & Power has not gone through the usual workshop process like Chavez Ravine. “We have done readings and it’s been developed, but it’s been all script work,” she says.

Before the actors start the reading, Montoya relates a recent conversation he had with the mayor about Water & Power, when Villaraigosa said, “Tell me it’s going to be funny. We need to laugh out here.”

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.”

On July 5, the end of the first week of rehearsals, the actors are on their feet, scripts in hand, and the play, after 35 pages of cuts, now reads at 95 minutes. Montoya is nearly worn out, and an e-mail from him reveals that, even with Michael Ritchie’s open-hearted pledge to do his play on faith (and reputation), there’s no avoiding the tortuous process of creating a work for the American theater:

“I guess what I really wanted to say, and it’s tricky, is that writing to everybody’s notes can have its rewards, the [people at the] table [have] made the play better, but sometimes we write ourselves into circles or in the corner . . . The writer has to stand down till the right time to speak up, and that is new and difficult. At the end of the day, I can listen to Yale [Peterson and Glore are both Yale graduates], sure, take the best they have to offer, but this thing has to also ring true for the street and MacArthur Park.”

The clock is ticking. Outside the Paradise Motel, a full moon is rising.

Water & Power starts previews July 27 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Sept. 17. (213) 628-2772 or www.­taperahmanson.com