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Theater review: 'Palestine, New Mexico' at Mark Taper Forum

December 14, 2009 |  6:00 pm

Palestine cover

The deserts of the Middle East and the Southwestern United States are far apart in every sense, but in “Palestine, New Mexico,” an odd mash-up of a work by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash, the cultural cartography is redrawn.

The play, which had its world premiere Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, contrives a common denominator in a disputed homeland that renders history a mystery and identity an even bigger puzzle. It’s a rich premise and another sign of Culture Clash’s ambition to plumb new multicultural depths of meaning by broadening its Chicano worldview.

Hard-core fans will be relieved to hear that the company’s lunatic irreverence hasn’t diminished as the subject matter has grown more serious. (Wait till you hear about the Native American tribes discovering their Jewish ancestry.) Unfortunately, this mix of antic comedy and tense drama hasn’t yet gelled into an assured style.

Palestine2 Director Lisa Peterson, who also staged Culture Clash’s more satisfying “Water & Power” at the Taper, erects an impressively elaborate production that inadvertently makes the work seem disproportionately smaller. The play’s shortcomings would be less glaring in a more bare-bones presentation. Yet the passionate plea for peace underlying this somber (and messily organized) farce will touch more than the company's army of guffawing loyalists.  

The landscape of red rocks, cactuses and chaparral of would seem to situate us not too far from home. But when the sky turns cobalt blue and the Muslim call to prayer is sounded, all geographical bets are off. Rachel Hauck’s scenic design and Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting and projection wizardry combine to invoke touches of Georgia O’Keeffe and Salvador Dalí. The effect intentionally leaves you flipping through mental atlases.

“Which desert of death am I in?” asks Capt. Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter), a military officer vaguely reminiscent of Iraq war veteran Jessica Lynch. Siler appears shell-shocked, and the guns pointing at her from above confirm that she’s in hostile territory. Yet, surrounded by swearing Native Americans, she’s clearly not in Afghanistan anymore.

What has possessed this woman, journeying from one embattled sand trap to another, to wander illegally onto the reservation? Siler is fulfilling her duty to Pfc. Raymond Birdsong, a fallen soldier who once saved her life. She has arrived bearing a letter he wrote to his father, Chief Birdsong (Russell Means), and she hopes in return to uncover information that could help her resolve unanswered questions about his death.
In particular, Siler wants to find out more about a soldier from a rival tribe named Suarez (Justin Rain), who Raymond mentioned in his last breath. Could he be the culprit rather than Taliban fire? Chief Birdsong just wants his son’s ghost (a role also assumed by Rain) to progress peacefully to the next world. But Siler, aided by Maria 15 (Geraldine Keams), the reservation’s wacky female “medicine man,” is determined to get to bottom of the story.

And what a cockeyed tale it is. With the Culture Clash trio of Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza adopting outlandish disguises and recycling old Indian shtick, the dizzying cast of characters comes to the realization that Raymond and Suarez’s warring tribal factions may in fact be joined by a grandmother’s menorah. Oy vey!

This curious development leads to a fantasy sequence featuring, among other harebrained shenanigans, a golem in the shape of a cactus. The high jinks have a fatuous air that aims to translate the zaniness of the Marx Brothers and Aristophanes into Culture Clash’s unique brand of tomfoolery. But the plot is convoluted in a way that isn’t always fun to follow, and the audience is put in the position of having to humor humorists having an off day. Even the circumcision jokes fall flat.

Potter acts with gritty conviction and the ensemble pulls out all the stops to get a rise, but these two tonalities don’t meld as well as they might. “Palestine, New Mexico” attempts to heal ancient divisions yet remains stylistically discordant.
It’s not until the burial procession finale that the play’s patchwork vision is united. But then, death has a knack for reconciling irreconcilable differences.
-- Charles McNulty 

‘Palestine, New Mexico." Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles Music Center. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Jan. 24. $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Photos: Top: Kirsten Potter and Justin Rain. Bottom: Geraldine Keams and Potter. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times