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Theater Review: Richard Montoya and Culture Clash’s ‘Palestine, New Mexico’ at the Mark Taper Forum

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by Sasha Mann, special to LAist

As you might have read, we are stepping out to hear Wagner’s Ring Cycle reprised at the LA Opera House sometime during its run this spring, because it’s easy for non-actors and non-drama majors (known also as regular people) to forget where the Hollywood green screen got its start. Which is also why we attended the new play from Culture Clash, ‘Palestine, New Mexico’ by famed Latino playwright Richard Montoya and directed by Lisa Peterson.

During its brief eighty-minute runtime, audiences experience the somewhat erratic but sweetly entertaining story of Captain Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) who has traveled to an American Indian reservation in New Mexico seeking to unravel a mystery surrounding one of her soldiers, Ray Birdsong. Depressed, dehydrated, and addicted to pills, this Anglo army woman is not welcome on the res, but is determined to speak to the chief and to deliver a letter written by Ray - the chief’s son - who died under her command in Afghanistan.

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Like other works from Culture Clash, ‘Palestine, New Mexico’ is primarily about identity politics, and provocatively compares warring Afghan tribes with the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and also with two Native American clans that have been feuding for as long as the chief can remember. While these parallels feel slightly contrived, it is hard not to be impressed by Montoya’s earnest politics, dexterous imagination, and hope for peace. The play asks many questions: How did Ray die? Why do the Birdsong people hate the Suarez, a neighboring Native American clan rumored to have Jewish roots? And did another Native American soldier - a Suarez, no less - have a hand in Ray’s death?

Eventually it answers them in a clever (if sophomoric) climactic scene in which the Captain drinks a mescaline-peyote potion and has a hallucinogenic dream quest. During this scene, the play’s central questions of identity materialize in the ridiculous form of a larger-than-life cactus wearing a Star of David. It’s all set against a pyrotechnic tableau that we have to admit is refreshingly transparent in the wake of the blindsiding hyperreality of Avatar. What it comes down to is this: we all have roots going back to the lost tribes of Israel, and all war is pretty much due to family secrets and rivalries long buried in the sand. As the Hollywood Reporter puts it, “[The ending] isn't in the least convincing, but the show is so well-intentioned it's hard too complain too much.”

Culture Clash and its latest endearing effort is worth seeing - if not for the silly stunts than for the humor and lightness it manages to infuse into a serious and often tragic political drama. Other than the laughs, the red desert rocks make for a beautiful set, and the cast comprises several seasoned faces who truly lift the play - and its implications - to the level of poignancy it so passionately strives to reach.

‘Palestine, New Mexico’ opened at the Mark Taper Forum on December 3 and is playing through January 24, 2010. Tickets are available from Centre Theater Group, at http://www.centertheatregroup.org.