Monday, December 28, 2009

Palestine, NM by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash

by Joe Straw

“God touched this dirt.” – a line from Palestine, NM

The sun sets easier on a peaceful nation. Colors from the sunset dance upon the mesa with a splendor you experience but cannot describe. It is a beauty so immense you yearn to spiritually corral the feelings around you and quietly share the optimism about the future with someone you love. After all, it was here, on the sixth day, where God laid down his shovel.

Sadly we are not a peaceful nation and in the new play, Palestine, NM, worlds collide giving us a collection of diverse cultures, unique perspectives, and unreliable answers about our existence. This is an exciting world premiere play written by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash and directed by Lisa Peterson at the Mark Taper Forum.

One can only marvel at Rachel Hauck’s set design when entering the theatre. It is a mesa of red cascading rocks stretched across the stage and resembling an image from a Willa Cather novel. It is immense and overpowering at the same time.

Captain Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) presents a small figure below the mesa. Warming by the fire she tries to stay focused on her mission. Arriving from Afghanistan, her assignment is to find Chief Birdsong (Russell Means) and personally deliver a letter she pulled from the pocket of his dying son, Ray Birdsong. And she needs to find Suarez (Justin Rain), the name of a soldier mentioned from the lips of the deceased who has gone AWOL.

She has traveled far, is dehydrated, and has stumbled upon an area in an Indian Reservation in the hopes that she will be found.

But, Siler has a problem. She is addicted to prescription drugs as a result of having posttraumatic stress. The night is playing tricks on her psyche. Illusions of tracers light up the night sky and fly by with an imagined ferocity. It is a night filled with hallucinations and conversations with a walking dead soldier.

A mosque, projected above the mesa, is ingrained in her mind as part of her natural order of business, the war she cannot leave behind. And there are unresolved issues pulling on her boots.

And as the morning gathers steam, she is found. And though this seems like an image from an Alice in Wonderland dream it is too real to be imagined. On top of the mesa, pointing their rifles are Mountain (Brandon Oakes), Broke Arrow (Robert Owens-Greygrass), Star Man, (Kalani Queypo), Suarez (Justin Rain) and Bronson (Ric Salinas).

Bronson (Ric Salenas) comes in like his namesake Charles Bronson – all guts and glory. Although he is a chief wannabe, he does not have the authority to control the slightest unforeseeable incidents on the mesa. Unable to kill Siler he decides to help her instead and calls her an ambulance.

Farmer (Herbert Siguenza) and Maria 15 (Geraldine Keams) ride in on a golf cart/ambulance complete with flashing lights and siren. But, the best they can do is rub mud on her face and give her sanitary napkins because, from the men’s perspective, it seems like a plausible explanation as to why a pale woman, Siler, is on the mesa.

Riding in from the west Top Hat (Richard Montoya) arrives on his bike (a substitute for a horse these days on the mesa). He claims to be a Rhodes scholar from East L.A. College - a 1/100th of a card carrying Native American. Showing signs of the solitary life on the mesa and wanting news from the outside world Top Hat asks Siler, “Has something happened to Tiger Woods?”

Montoya, the writer, is either a genius or a fool, or a genius with foolish tendencies. Either way, this is the makeup of a great artist and part of a great institution, Culture Clash.

Culture Clash is inventive and imaginative. Focused and relevant they seem to provide the necessary elements to move the play along. The VFW bit is just hilarious. It’s a serious moment paying tribute on the mesa to the death of a soldier when an outlet for an amplifier is found.

But not all things work, the friction between Bronson and Top Hat is not fully realized. They insult each other as to who is more of an Indian. Certainly a part of the character makeup, but does it takes us anywhere? Also, the supporting characters are not fully developed. Determined to stay in the background and lost in their objectives. The reasons why the characters are called Mountain, Broke Arrow, and Star Man are not yet entirely realized. Other members in the cast were LaVonne Rae Andrews (Sally 30/30) and Michelle Diaz (La Megadeath).

Potter, in a demanding role, has a challenging three-fold mission. As an actor she must find the chief, find Suarez, and unravel Birdsong’s mysterious death. It is cumbersome and inefficient. But Potter’s strength and tenaciousness manages us to keep her in our thoughts for some time.

Means is an iconic and majestic Native American on the path of historical significance. There will be a moment when all will come to him in this role.

We do not completely understand why Jones as Dacotah is there. Separated by half a stage during her scene with Siler does not do her justice.

Keams is amusing and sympathetic as Maria 15. One has to wonder: where are the other Marias? (1 – 14).

Lisa Peterson, the director, has taken Montoya’s script and turned it into a visual feast. The blend of set (Rachel Hauck), costumes (Christopher Acebo), vehicles, lighting (Nichols), makes for a captivating night of comedy and awe despite the few problems.

Applause must be given Peterson, Culture Clash, and Erika Sellin, the casting director, for the diverse makeup of the cast: Native Americans, Chicanos, Mexicans, etc., are a large portion of our culture in Los Angeles but represent little in terms of feature films and television representation.

Alexander V. Nichols lighting and projection design was nicely done. Tracers, mosques, moon, and sunset blue filled the night sky. A special appearance by Speedy Gonzales was projected on the rocks as part of the peyote sequence among others images.

Mark Taper Forum

December 3, 2009 – January 24, 2010

Student performances January 12-15


  1. Thanks Joe - your very fair review captured Palestine - so many "critics" have chided me to stay in my hood- I cannot -

    thanks so much - and thanks for loving so much theater in LA...