Palestine, New Mexico – Culture Clash – Los Angeles
CULTURE CLASH AND THE CURRENT STATE OF LOS ANGELES THEATER
by Harvey Perr
published December 24, 2009
Palestine, New Mexico
now playing in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum
through January 24
+ a recap of recent theater in Los Angeles
Since Culture Clash is not only a theatrical institution in Los Angeles but a beloved one to boot, and because its
members are no-holds-barred Latino artists, and since this reviewer is fairly new to the Los Angeles theater scene as it exists today and
not familiar with Culture Clash’s prior achievements, I feel a little intimidated about writing anything negative about them without
risking being ostracized by the theater community for not appreciating their particular gifts. But, hell, I’ve seen two Culture Clash
productions now – Peace and Palestine, New Mexico – and both works seemed more lazy and silly than sharp and witty. It may be churlish of me
to say that aloud, but, in the theater (as in anything), good is good and bad is bad. Clocking in at seventy-five minutes and seeming twice
as long, Palestine, New Mexico is a hash of warmed-over jokes – many of them with Jewish
references that suggest pandering to the Mark Taper Forum subscribers – and half-digested serious ideas, that, together, create little more
than a confusion of messages delivered in a style that is almost self-consciously amateurish. The kindest I can be is to say that, perhaps,
on opening night, the evening hadn’t yet coalesced into a unified whole. The director, Lisa
Peterson, usually a reliable craftsperson, seems to have put the mess on stage and left it alone to work itself out, and she is not helped
by the fact that the central character, a soldier responsible for bringing news of a fellow soldier’s death to his native American family,
is played by Kirsten Potter without personality, nuance or a trace of theatrical dynamism. Richard Montoya, who takes full responsibility
for the play, has given himself and his two cohorts, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, the best parts (as was also true in Peace). In general, if their earlier work had a brilliance and intelligence
that, it has been suggested, was everywhere present, perhaps it is time to ask if they have overextended themselves or if their admirers
haven’t been perhaps a bit too kind in the past.
Although I agree with my colleague, John Topping, that Mary Poppins was better in Los Angeles than on Broadway, livelier and more focused and darker in tone, I’m not
so sure it’s because they returned to the spirit of its London production. England is the home, after all, of P.L. Travers, who created the
character of the astringent nanny, and America is the home of Walt Disney, whose Mary is now better known than the original, and never the
twain shall meet, except at the box-office. With Disney behind the show, and the millions of dollars that go with that name, it should come
as no surprise that there was magic galore in the production. But it is manufactured magic, at best. Compare it to the magic of Arias With A Twist, where the magic is the result not of money spent
but of already volatile imaginations allowing themselves to go to the limits.
It was, incidentally, thrilling to see how successful Arias was at the
Redcat Theatre; it was at the top of my list of last year’s theater experiences in New York City and, this year, it was at the top of the
list of theater experiences this reviewer has had in Los Angeles. It was interesting that Charles McNulty, of the LA Times, in talking
about the best productions of the year, went outside Los Angeles for many of his choices. We have so much theater here and yet it is clear
that we are still lagging behind in the area of creating a unique theatrical voice.
But if it is true that Los Angeles cannot contain ten worthy projects within a given year, as McNulty suggests, then
maybe the time has come to assess just what it is that Los Angeles theater has contributed. Among the home-grown work that registered with
me was Justin Tanner’s Oklahomo!; the Celebration
Theatre production of Fucking Men; the superb acting of Alan
Mandell and company in the Odyssey Theatre production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.
But, admittedly, what I shall remember best of all (always with the exception of Arias With A Twist) was the appearance here of a visiting company – Druid Ireland – in the UCLALive!
Series, and their extraordinary introduction to the world of playwright Enda Walsh whose The New Electric Ballroom and, better still, The Walworth Farce proved that if you dress up old concepts in new and brightly unpredictable
colors and tones, voila, you’ve got a brand new way of looking at things that you may have thought you’d come to a conclusion about in the
past. All families are the same and yet no two families are alike.
And, speaking of the UCLALive! Series, if anyone involved with Medea had a sense of humor, this could have been the comic hoot of the season instead of the morbidly dumb
show that passed our way. I praise all directors, European or American, for breathing new life into old plays, but one could wish that some
might learn that just being different is not the same as being revelatory. Still, just as one sometimes remembers the bad as vividly as one
remembers the good, this is the Medea I will never forget for having as its chorus an aggressive
bunch of sexy leather lesbians.
A note too on the “Donmar Warehouse production” of Parade: Just because we have the same director and the same design team does not
totally qualify it as the same production. The central element in any production is its cast, and a new cast can invariably alter its pace and
rhythm. Because Parade seemed, to one reviewer at least, more full of promise than genuine
achievement, and since I did not see it in its incarnation at the Donmar Warehouse, it is hard to say what was at fault here. Still, Parade was one of the better musicals of recent years, so my complaints are minor. And, in the case of
August: Osage County, despite the fact that the cavernous
Ahmanson was absolutely the wrong theater for such an intimate drama, Los Angeles did get to see what even Broadway missed out on: Estelle
Parsons got herself a better cast to work with, which allowed Ms. Parsons to plumb every conceivable depth of her drug-ridden matriarch with
the result that she finally erased the vivid memory of Deanna Dunagan, who created the part. The passion and inexhaustible energy one saw in
Ms. Parsons could fill any theater, even one as large at the Ahmanson, with the hope of future
I always look forward to greatness in the theater. And so I look forward to 2010 with hope in my heart. And one
hopes, too, that Culture Clash finds its way back to the place where they gained their reputation and prove me wrong when I say that their
work in 2009 was majestically disappointing and a rebuke to good theater anywhere.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com