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Play Revisits The Story Of Chavez Ravine, With Some Laughs

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A dozen years ago, the satirical Latino/Chicano theater and performance trio Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) debuted its historical sketch comedy revue Chavez Ravine at the Mark Taper Forum. Entertaining and educational, this full-length show offered an account of the mid-20th century venality and political corruption that led to the destruction of the mostly Mexican-American residential communities once entrenched in the hills between Silver Lake and Echo Park and the subsequent building of Dodger Stadium on the "sacred ground" where so many families lost their homes. This month, Culture Clash is performing a moderately updated revival of Chavez Ravine at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

It really is an ugly episode in the story of our urban development that Chavez Ravine recounts, one that every civic-minded Angeleno should learn about. And a breezy, fast-paced evening of silly jokes and charismatic schtick isn't a bad vehicle for getting the weighty story across to an audience that may have little knowledge of these events.

Including actress Sabina Zugina Varela, the cast of four move quickly in and out of dozens of roles, some fictional or composite but many specific and well known, ranging from Vin Scully and Fernando Valenzuela to Richard Neutra to J. Edgar Hoover and Kenneth Hahn, among many others. With less skilled perfomers, the constant transitioning from scene to scene and character to character could easily devolve into a mess of undelineated encounters and rushed line deliveries. Here, under the guidance of director Lisa Peterson, who also helmed the original 2003 Chavez Ravine production, the actors all very capably establish themselves in their multiple identities as one situation follows fast after another after another.

What does end up missing, though, amid all the madcap fun and breakneck storytelling, is much of an emotional investment in the personal stories of the myriad people we meet. Though we understand all the injustices perpetrated, we hardly feel the tragedies of their victims. The one character who gets the most attention is Montoya's Frank Wilkinson, an activist city housing official whose ambitious initiative to build improved public housing for Chavez Ravine residents landed him in front of the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee and then in jail. Much as we admire him, though, even his plight is too deeply embedded within the show's relentless onslaught of wisecracks and caricatures for us to lament his mistreatment for more than a passing moment.

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The show's comedy bits themselves are hit and miss. When Wilkinson tells a group of Chavez Ravine residents that the new development he has in mind will feature attractively landscaped cul-de-sacs, one of them responds "What's a culo sack?" Or when some other locals discuss Jackie Robinson's achievement in breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier and one of them contemplates the seemingly unlikely prospect of an African American team owner some day, another muses "That would be magic!" There are a lot of jokes like these in Chavez Ravine.

The production is enhanced considerably by the accompaniment of a three-piece acoustic band as well as the frequent projection of historic photographs of the now-vanished neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, in addition to video footage of the police coming in to force the last residents out and the actual demolition of their houses in the late 1950s.

For three performances this week, the entire Kirk Douglas Theatre has been reserved for school groups to come and see Chavez Ravine, and we only wish every student in town could have the chance to encounter this high-energy history lesson about "the colonial ghosts of Los Angeles." It wouldn't be a bad pedagogical experience for anyone else, either. Especially anyone else with a taste for broad neo-Vaudevillian humor.

Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival plays eight shows a week through March 1 (though no public performances tonight through Thursday). Tickets $25-65.