I have to admit, I groaned when I first saw the title of the new show at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum: Palestine, New Mexico. I groaned even louder when I read the nutshell description of the play: U.S. Army Capt. Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) travels to the Native American reservation of one of her soldiers to further investigate his mysterious death in Afghanistan. It all suggests — heck, it nearly proclaims — that a deadly self-serious evening of theater is in store, filled with earnest, didactic speeches about identity and ”otherness” that is great for a seminar on the dialectics of cultural minorities but often makes for terrifically inert drama. This play, however, is a product of the Los Angeles theater troupe Culture Clash, a trio of Hispanic performers (Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza, and Richard Montoya, also the playwright) whose special brand of dramaturgical absurdity over the last 25 years has made them celebrities within the L.A. theater community. At one point in the play, Montoya, playing a self-described ”Rhodes scholar from East L.A. College” living on the reservation and bemoaning his isolation there, turns to the female captain and asks, ”Has something happened to Tiger Woods?” Later, a giant, grimacing, Jewish cactus bounds on stage during a peyote-induced fever dream. Self-seriousness is far from this play’s problems.
There are still speeches about cultural identity, of course; much of the play’s plot circles around the silence about intermarriage between Native Americans and Sephardic Jews who, in the 17th century, fled persecution in Spain for freedom in the area now known as New Mexico. Rather than really explore those themes, though, Montoya peppers the brisk 90-minute production with scatter-shot blasts of humor that range from pointedly topical (e.g., that Tiger Woods joke) to a five-minute interlude in which he, Salinas, and Siguenza broadly vamp as wisecracking Native American WWII vets. They stop the play cold with their vaguely vaudevillian shtick, but the trio’s patter is so light-footed, that I didn’t so much mind it.
Potter’s role as Capt. Siler is much less forgiving; she never leaves the stage but is rarely given more to do than find new ways of forcefully asking the same questions about her fallen soldier, whose father happens to be the local tribe’s chief. The central mystery — whether this soldier was a traitor — is not all that taxing to solve, either, which only makes the dreamlike visual flourishes by director Lisa Peterson and her design team seem like further attempts to gussy up a simple tale. By the end, I found myself yearning for less silliness and flash and more serious theatrics about identity and ”otherness.” The drama was never inert, but it rarely came to life. Grade: C+
(Tickets: www.centertheatregroup.org or 213.628.2772)