Los Angeles is a city that often ignores its history. Maybe it’s due to the reinvention promise of Hollywood, or the laid back West Coast vibe, or the large number of transplants who live here. In any case, many of L.A.’s current residents know little about the city’s past, so the history lesson that this revival of the theater troupe Culture Clash’s iconic play Chavez Ravine provides, even as it entertains, is a timely one.
The play begins with Vin Scully (Richard Montoya) announcing opening day of the 1981 Dodgers season at the outset of Fernandomania. While rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela (Herbert Siguenza) is on the mound, he is visited by the ghosts of La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde — the Latino neighborhoods that were bulldozed to make way for what would eventually become Dodger Stadium. These ghosts take the form of Henry (Ric Salinas) and Maria Ruiz (Sabina Zuniga Varela), whose family journey serves as a spine for the story of the Ravine itself, beginning in 1944 and dealing with issues of race, class and gentrification.
Presented in typical vaudevillian Culture Clash style, with all cast members playing dozens of roles, the plot touches on with everything from Chicano GIs returning from World War II to the California Housing Authority’s plans in the 1950s for affordable housing to J. Edgar Hoover and the Red Scare helping city power brokers shut down those urban development plans to Walter O’Malley bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles.
Despite streamlining the original 2003 Mark Taper Forum production, this revival does add a radio drama device that features shadowy noir figures. At the same time, bits from the original continue to delight, such as a faithfully rendered Abbott and Costello routine that seamlessly segues into Spanish and an audience sing-along to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” complete with popcorn tossed into the crowd.
The show’s historical bent is equally reflected in its eye-catching staging and design elements. Director Lisa Peterson, who also returns from the original production, crafts an old-fashioned radio studio ambience, complete with wooden floors and furnishings (Rachel Hauck designed the set), period microphones and a live musical trio (Vaneza Mari Calderón, Randy Rodarte, and Scott Rodarte). Christopher Acebo’s parade of evocative costumes (de rigueur for any Culture Clash show) and Jason H. Thompson’s fantastically immersive projections complete the throwback to Los Angeles past.
As theatrical activists, Montoya, Salinas, and Siguenza maintain their characteristic screwball charm and satiric bite in equal parts, while newcomer Varela keeps pace admirably. The band is no less part of the performance with its atmospheric score, zany sound effects, and interplay with the actors. Peterson manages a series of lighting-quick transitions and costume changes that lend momentum to a show that occasionally drags dramatically, but never falters comedically or historically.
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Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through March 1. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org
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