Latino clowns Culture Clash (Rick Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) have made the art of creating docucomedies about American cities and neighborhoods into a cottage industry — from Bordertown (San Diego) to Radio Mambo (Miami) to Nuyorican Stories (Nu Yorc). Most of these have been commissions from regional theaters in the aforementioned regions. The Clash’s latest, Chavez Ravine, is no exception. The Mark Taper Forum’s Gordon Davidson invited them to tell the story of the House That Walter O’Malley Built, and of the people who lived on the land before the bulldozers came, how they lived, what became of them and of the resisters who fought on their behalf against the tide of history.
The play, which is really a series of sketches, contains about 50 characters. That’s a lot of quick changes for three actors. So the ensemble also includes Eileen Galindo and a trio of musician-performers (Randy Rodarte and Scott Rodarte, both on guitar; and John Avila on string bass). Lisa Peterson directs, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The result is Dodger soup: a light broth of nostalgia, enhanced through the sweet songs and melodies composed by the Rodarte brothers, Avila and Montoya — easy on the palate, with little chunks of Farmer John sausage for a meaty flavor. Then there are tortilla chips — as crisp as Culture Clash’s barrage of wisecracks, and spicy too. But if you gulp they get stuck in your throat, where they cause mild irritation until dissolved.
“What kind of cans do they shoot at the Police Academy?” a local standup asks in one scene. “Mexi-cans!” Another beer please — to wash that one down. The local election for Proposition B (authorizing the construction of Dodger Stadium) was “closer than a priest on an altar boy.” A collective groan from the otherwise enthusiastic audience accompanied that crack.
Peterson tries to strike a balance between a poetical ode to a vanquished neighborhood — and the sense of community it represents (that’s where the guitar riffs come in) — with the more uplifting view of destiny, almost manifested as boosterism: All right, it’s a shame about those families and friends being ousted, but, come on, it was a shantytown with dirt streets, no running water, chickens and goats wandering around unfenced. And now Dodger Stadium is a center of civic pride for a World Class City. Though the play strikes a clear chord of indignation at self-serving politicians who exploited the Red scare to smear the proponents of public housing in the Ravine, Peterson has everybody standing for a jocular, audience-participatory seventh-inning stretch, while the actors fling bags of popcorn into the house. A theatrical snapshot of pitcher Fernando Valenzuela (Siguenza), shuttled north from Mexico, completing his first shutout of the Houston Astros as a Dodger in 1981 — the embraces by teammates, the burst of ethnic and civic pride — is a Hallmark moment so artfully designed, you could e-mail it to relatives in Sonora for Father’s Day. This play shifts its point of view as often as the actors change costumes.
And so the production keeps blurting through tones and perspectives like a flipbook in which, when running the pages past your thumb, you see animation depicted on the paper. In Chavez Ravine, the moving picture is that of a neighborhood being decimated at first by a well-meaning plan offered by postwar lefties to bring public housing to the slum — a plan stalled, then betrayed by commie-baiting politicians whose hearts are set on the kickbacks from private development deals on the land — until a baseball stadium arises on the almost vacated turf. (The stadium is the most politically expedient repair for the ongoing ideological tear between public use and private enterprise.) But in this flipbook of a play, the moving picture is too sketchy and digressive to be truly moving.
There are many glimmers of poignancy, such as the riff between Henry and his sister, Maria (Salinas and Galindo). Henry, a young World War II veteran, is determined to sell out and move on to better opportunities; Maria, a political activist, is equally determined to stay and resist the land developers. The single gesture of him finally walking out on his family encapsulates the passing of an era. The stunned expression of City Housing Authority rep Frank Wilkinson (Montoya) upon realizing that his entire career has just been smeared and torpedoed by local anti-communist blacklisters (in cahoots with J. Edgar Hoover) and that he has barely escaped the bullets of an assassination committee (that included former Police Chief Daryl Gates) similarly wrenches at feeling.
But such moments of tenderness keep getting cut off at the knees by yet another wisecrack or theatrical digression, another stage cross by crazy Señora Sanchez in drag muttering jokey curses in Spanglish, another insufferable scene with Mayor Norris Paulson, played by Salinas as an idiot-savant political puppet. Many of the jokes land, some of them don’t, but the cumulative effect takes a carving knife to the blocks of emotion that have been so carefully crafted.
Shortly after Maria calls a meeting of the locals to protest Proposition B and is all but abandoned by her flock, a Dodger Dog Girl (Montoya) descends from the rafters, hanging over the crowd, making jokes about forgetting her lines and needing to pee. Late in the play, the Clash re-enacts Abbott and Costello’s sketch routine “Who’s on First” in its entirety and with Spanish asides, as part of a Dodgerthon political campaign in support of Prop. B. The act is very funny, but it’s yet another detour from the story’s drive, a playlet within the play, a framed excuse for another gag. While the clout of the developer/celebrity/media blitz supporting Prop. B is crushing Maria, the audience is roaring with laughter at Abbott and Costello. So where, exactly, lies this production’s heart?
Though storytelling is always about jumping to and from different viewpoints, Peterson simply can’t fuse the varying styles she’s employed to translate this epic, or, at least, to home in on a prevailing style that reflects a commitment to a point of view. She uses the Clash’s commedia skills to such distraction, she leaves Chavez Ravine suspended, like the Dodger Dog Girl, somewhere between a lament and a lampoon. Imagine The Cherry Orchard performed by Cheech and Chong.
For all its gimmicks, the docucomedy and its parade of players reflect prodigious research and a window onto a corner of our city that’s every bit as compelling as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Even though a poet guide (Siguenza) arrives like Dante’s Virgil a third of the way into the play, as though he got stuck on the Red Line on his way to the theater, the central conceit of Valenzuela on the mound, haunted by spirits (Dodger Stadium was built on burial grounds) is, well, hauntingly beautiful.
Rachel Hauck’s set transforms the Taper’s thrust stage into the Dodger infield, with graphic snatches of the familiar distance markers set at cubist angles on placards and pillars in nests of blue and white. Then the slide-projected emblems of the stadium dissolve into photographs of the Ravine from the late 1940s, suspended over the action in a kind, stoic counterpoint to the clowning below, a visual match for Peterson’s contrapuntal technique of storytelling that takes us from rage against the machine to sympathy for the devil.
But at what point does a multiplicity of angles devolve from enriching a saga into mere equivocation? It’s one thing to avoid making heroes out of victims, just because they’ve been victimized. But this story keeps landing on Maria, who’s no victim but a fighter like Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Chavez Ravine flows toward an argument between Maria and the Future, and Peterson’s production, careening from a revered past to a hopeful future, from injustice to wisecracking, strives to be both above the argument and below it at the same time, like Dante doing a pratfall.
CHAVEZ RAVINE | By CULTURE CLASH | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through July 6