Tuesday, August 15, 2006
The Mark Taper Forum's production of Richard Montoya's play, Water and Power, marks an important departure for Culture Clash. The performancethrough September 17 at Los Angeles' most important stage-- is not a collective-writen satiric comedy revue, but a fully realized drama written by Richard Montoya. In fact, the Taper bills the production as "Water and Power by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash." And, although generously peppered with moments of satiric hilarity, Water and Power is a deadly serious tragedy. No, this is not your "usual" Culture Clash event. Still, Culture Clash has once again brought a powerfully entertaining experience to its Los Angeles audience.
Gibby and Gabby Garcia, AKA the twins, AKA thunder and lightning, AKA Water and Power, find themselves in a profoundly dangerous predicament. Power has shot a man and is holed up in at the Paradise Motel. Water has big time political connections that can get his brother off the hook. "Don't make the call," Power tells Water. Water makes the call. As he must, since this is a play about choices.
What's in a name? Everything. Water fits into any container, takes on whatever shape surrounds him, goes with the flow when not contained. This is Gilbert, an influential California State Senator. Gabriel is an LAPD Lieutenant--Power. But Power has long since blown his fuses, acknowledging he has become a monster because his career has been fighting monsters.
Richard Montoya wears the politician role like a glove. The actor's crystal clear voice lacks any distinctive ethnic or regional color. The Senator has a deal in the works to create a public green space from an important parcel of prime landnear the Los Angeles River. LA locals who follow news will recognize the geography from ongoing land use controversies.
Herbert Siguenza is a big guy and fills the LAPD uniform as Power convincingly. Unfortunately, Siguenza's Power character hits the stage with less urgency and presence than needed to keep the play rolling at full speed.
Culture Clash's third member, Ric Salinas, plays Norte/Sur, whose curious character creates an amalgam that ranges from guardian angel to moral guru, to the shoeshine stand informant in the old Baretta television series, or a Leslie Nielsen Police Squad farce.
An outstanding cast complements the Culture Clash core. Moises Arias is endearing playing the child Gibby and Gabby, and a scene stealer. Speaking of scene stealers, Dakin Mattews as The Fixer, makes his audience squirm with distaste. Winston J. Rocha, as Gibby and Gabby's father embodies sentimentality and controversial parenting. Emilio Rivera as El Musico/Vendor, fills out the cast.
Water and Power take their names from their father's job with the Department of Water and Power. There is no mother; this is the story of a father raising his two sons to be men. Dad's technique: fit the boys with boxing gloves and let them knock the daylights out of each other, then give each slightly divergent counsel. In one scene, Asuncion counsels Gilbert always to look out for his younger, dumber, brother. In the complementary scene, dad tells Gabriel that he isn’t necessarily the dumber one, sending the boy off with the advice to punch his brother in the face when he’s not looking.
When the Senator, Water, heads out to make the political conecta to save his brother the audience collapses in laughter at The Fixer. Dressed in an ice cream suit, his head topped with a shock of white hair, Dakin Mathews plays the Brentwood power broker with an ominous viciousness. To an LA audience, the man in white clearly could be identified as power broker Eli Broad, who is often photographed dressed in white. To avoid a libel charge, however, Mathews plays The Fixer with sleaze and accent that contrasts to the actual Brentwood power broker's public persona.
To this point, Gibby has more than held his own with the morally bereft brother, he is every ounce the powerful politician and older brother. In the white man's presence, however, Water sits totally subdued, and, although he expresses his political convictions, in the end he chooses the wrong path.
Montoya is not one to allow his audience easy comfort. The choices his characters make have turned the one into a monster, the other into a "Hispanic". The former falls as low as a cop can--a premeditated murderer, even though he has a noble cause. The latter may be a misperception, but not necessarily. When the Senator takes The Fixer's offer, the choices are to save his brother or betray the community. To hammer home the point, the man in white forces Gibby into a stomach-turning humiliation that leaves the audience stunned.
I heard one theatre goer say "Montoya has some great plays in him." He's totally correct on that, but the future tense isn't necessary. I exited the theatre in a stunned, subdued enthusiasm. Water and Power is already a great play. Not that it doesn't lag in the last third here and there, and Montoya's insistence on explaining Norte/Sur's character more than needed earlier. The play at first seems puro El Lay--thus not amenable to hitting the road--owing to Montoya's hilarious use of L.A. neighborhoods. The allusions are easily changed. Where Los Angeles has Maravilla, Hazard, White Fence, Ramona Gardens, Estrada Courts, Atwater Village (where real men come from), the "in-jokes" are readily transferred to Segundo Barrio, the Third Ward, or whatever local place name fits a theatre near you.
Here's to Richard Montoya's debut as a playwrite! Writing as part of the Culture Clash collective, Montoya's work has taken on the lustre of the collective. Now, emerging from his own shadow, Montoya's and the group's career should take some interesting arcs to ever higher accolades from an ever broader audience. Don't wait for Water and Power to come to your neighborhood. LA's a great place to visit and, until September 17, you can buy a ticket to Water and Power. There is so much to enjoy and talk about in this performance, that once you've enjoyed it you'll want your friends to see the play, too. When they do, you'll have hours of conversations about a hugely rich theatrical experience.
That's the third week of August, 2006. Tempus fugit, gente, carpe a book and read! See you next week.