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Culture Clash Anthology

A 15-year retrospective of the work of the famed Chicano/Latino comedy troupe is a hit in L.A.

Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya,
and Herbert Siguenza
Famed for its socially relevant but irreverent humore, the nation's premiere Chicano/Latino comedy trio is making a return visit to the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Culture Clash Anthology: A 15 Year Retrospective opened Saturday, April 29 and is performing through May 21. Created, written and performed by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza, the show offers highlights from award-winning plays including The Mission, A Bowl of Beings (which was adapted as a PBS television special), S.O.S., Radio Mambo, Carpa Clash, Bordertown, Nuyorican Stories, and some new work not seen before in L.A.

"We started out in 1984 in San Francisco as a kind of weekend lark, putting together some impromptu satire for a Cinco de Mayo celebration," recalls Siguenza. "We haven't really stopped working since."

Traveling an average of 10 months a year, the trio has performed in venues all over the country, including the Mark Taper Forum, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, South Coast Repertory, Magic Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Repertory, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and Lincoln Center in New York, Seattle Repertory, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and numerous universities and colleges. "I guess both the good news and the bad news is that we keep running out of material," comments Montoya. "Latino culture in this country is diverse, always evolving, and there are very real concerns and inequities that must be addressed. The retrospective we are performing at LATC is drawn from our previous work; yet it contains some new pieces because we are always finding subject matter for our particular brand of satire."

Constantly breaking the theatrical "fourth wall" to include the audience in its shenanigans, Anthology is a spirited theatrical outing that underscores the trio's ability to infuse socio-political awareness of Latino life in America with hilariously adroit physicality. "We follow the same street theater, commedia dell'arte traditions that were pioneered by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino in the 1960s," affirms Siguenza. "We make sure there is little distance between us and the audience, because they are the life force that keeps us going."

Anthology runs about two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission. Two lengthy pieces dominate the first act. Satirizing the self-conscious ritualism of The Godfather films, Siguenza offers a burlesque-like portrait of Christopher Columbus as a godfather figure, overseeing the in-fighting between his favored Anglo son (Salinas) and his New World offspring (Montoya), whose mother (guest performer Vivianne Nacif) is the symbol of all native Americans. Proclaiming himself "the first Chicano," Montoya comically destroys the specter of Columbus and his brother for centuries of abuse to Latin Americans, "including Ricky Martin singing, La Vida F***king Loca."
Montoya then assumes the dead-on persona of an easy-going San Francisco based "vato" (not unlike the Cheech Marin character from Born in East L.A.) who would rather send out for Domino's pizza and watch the 49ers on TV than get involved in a Chicano political rally. His low-life tranquility is invaded by the ravenously militaristic ghost of Che Guevara (Siguenza), who insists that the vato and the Domino's delivery man (Salinas) start a revolution by taking over the pizza empire "one Domino at a time." (Montoya deadpans to Salinas: "We have a guerrilla in our midst.")

"Both of these vignettes come from our earlier work A Bowl of Beings," says Salinas. "Of course, we are constantly throwing in contemporary ad-libs to liven things up; but the scenes are pretty much intact, as they were written and performed a decade ago. It does surprise us, at times, that the work and the issues we address are as valid now as they were back then."

The second act of Anthology features excerpts from Culture Clash's more recent work, beginning with the ingeniously symbolic Bordertown vignette in which Salinas is the San Diego husband figure to Siguenza's Tijuana wife. Though he crosses over at will to have his way with her, San Diego won't allow the much put-upon Tijuana to be part of his real life. Siguenza then offers a poignant Radio Mambo monologue as a gently philosophical Haitian immigrant who sees his life in Miami as simply getting along with his neighbors but never trusting the political system. "Government is the enemy and we the people pay for it," the character utters sadly.

Radio Mambo (1995) and Bordertown (1998) are two examples of shows that were developed from taped interviews conducted by the trio in various parts of the U.S. "None of us are from Miami or San Diego," says Montoya. "Yet these are areas that are heavily populated with Latinos." Demonstratring the Culture Clash technique of taping interviews with people to harvest material for shows, Montoya recreates a comical session with a clueless Miami couple (Siguenza & Salinas) who mindlessly relate how their demolition company has reaped a fortune due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew.

Concluding Anthology with excerpts from Nuyorican Stories (1999), the trio brings to life the powerful writings of such Puerto Rican poets as Miguel Pinero. To lighten the mood, Salinas offers a physically facile display of footwork as he explains that you can tell a person's ethnicity by "the way they dance salsa."

"Going from the heaviness of Pinero to a spoof on salsa dancing is our way of balancing the evening," says Salinas. "The tragic and the comical aspects of Latino life always co-exist, and the joy of doing our work is being able to bring both to the stage."

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