December 14, 2009

Indian shtick in Palestine, New Mexico

Theater review:  'Palestine, New Mexico' at Mark Taper ForumThe 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.
And:“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!
Another review seems to confirm this review's point:

Palestine, New Mexico--Theater Review

By Jay ReinerIn their last venture together at the Taper, "Water and Power," Montoya took on the burgeoning Latino power structure in Los Angeles, leaving few targets unscathed. In "Palestine," his objectives are neither as clear nor the results as entertaining.

There's no denying that Montoya, who wrote the piece, knows how to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. But mixing satire, farce, plain silliness, pathos and tragedy in one cloudy cocktail glass is tricky business. The question is whether Montoya's throw-it-up-and-see-what-sticks style can serve a story with serious and even tragic themes. At times, the play's wildly disparate elements appear to jell, but more often than not the drink is predictable and flat.

Bottom Line: More crash than clash in Culture Clash's latest. Back to the drawing board.
A photo album of the play:

Center Theatre Group's Photos--Palestine, New Mexico

Adam Beach, Hamish Linklater (The New Adventures of Old Christine), Benito Martinez (The Shield), and others schmooze with the stars at the play's premiere:

Center Theatre Group's Photos--Palestine, New Mexico OPENING NIGHT!

Comment:  It might be illegal to enter one or two reservations without permission, but that isn't true in general. Nor would you be surrounded by hostile Indians if you trespassed. Sounds like a savage Indian stereotype to me.

And tribes with Jewish ancestry? That sounds uncomfortably like the Mormon fairy tales about Indians as a lost tribe of Israel.

For more on Palestine, New Mexico, see Palestine, New Mexico Premieres and Means to Star in Play. For more on plays in general, see Native Plays and Other Stage Shows.

Below:  Geraldine Keams and Kirsten Potter. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times)


m. said...

Oh, god...


I am sick of the struggles, lives, voices, narratives, etc. of Native people being co-opted by outsiders for their stupid art or causes or performances. It's TIRED!

Kat said...

When you first posted about this, it sounded like it was on Indian Iraq vets, which sounded interesting.

Apparently it's really about the Chicano playwright's (Richard Montoya's) suspected own distant-past Jewish roots, which he now projects on a Native tribe in New Mexico (Mexico, get it?) WTF?

Digging for Jewish Roots in 'Palestine, New Mexico'

The costume in the picture is awful too. Not that I don't totally digg tophats, but...

Kat said...

Oh, and the name of the Indian reservation in the play?!


(from LA Weekly

dmarks said...


Oh great. A play as it it were written by the South Park kids.

Kat said...

Regarding costume, I'll semi-retreat, he's supposed to be crazy anyways:

"Three of the guards, a hilarious trio of Culture Clash loonies, are closer in spirit to The Three Stooges than to the earnest and solemn Indians we usually see depicted in films. There is Top Hat, beautifully played by playwright Richard Montoya, who talks to his bicycle as if it were a horse and carries in his hatband an 'Indian authenticity card' that verifies his claim to being '1/100th Indian.'"

Why guards though?