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Theater Review

Still Sharp, Cutting and on the Edge

The satirical comedy troupe Culture Clash is celebrating its 15th anniversary with an anthology, and the trio seems better than ever.

May 03, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

The idea of a "greatest hits" compilation by a satirical comedy group sounds problematic. While not all fresh satire is sharp, certainly a much higher proportion of sharp satire is fresh. Why return to former, possibly faded material?

Nevertheless, "Culture Clash Anthology," subtitled "A 15-Year Retrospective," has defeated the odds. Currently in a trenchant production at Los Angeles Theatre Center's Theatre 3, it's the most satisfying Culture Clash show ever.

The Culture Clash trio--Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza--hasn't just dredged up the past. They've spruced it up as well, nimbly maneuvering contemporary references into the old material. That means jokes taken from the ongoing sagas of Elian Gonzalez and the Rampart division. L.A.'s janitors are also represented.

The material is especially well structured. The first half is devoted to issues and personalities that have long been part of the group's repertoire, while the second focuses on excerpts from the group's more recent, quasi-anthropological shows, based on interviews with people in Miami, San Diego and the Nuyorican community in New York.

Sam Woodhouse, whose San Diego Repertory Theatre first presented "Anthology," co-directed along with the Clash, presumably helping to shape the show. Besides the three stars, Vivianne Nacif serves as a visual motif in the midst of the eclectic material by appearing several times as a spectral figure in a Day of the Dead skeleton costume. The beginning and closing scenes are linked by imagery as well.

The sketches start with Christopher Columbus as a Brando-style godfather (Siguenza), whose two sons (Salinas as a Spanish scion, Montoya as part-American) clash. Then Salinas masterfully performs a bittersweet mime about a Salvadoran who immigrates to Los Angeles.

The heart of the first half is an extended sketch about a radically chic Chicano (Montoya) who finds it hard to interrupt his football-watching to attend the correct rallies. Among his visitors is Che Guevara (Siguenza), who wants to find out what has happened since he died. The potshots that result are not necessarily flattering to what appears to be Culture Clash's own political leanings.

A brief slide show on contemporary L.A. segues into the first-act finale, Siguenza's classic impersonation of Julio Iglesias. The theater once again rocked with helpless laughter--it's that funny.

The second act features the brilliant "Bordertown" sketch in which San Diego and Tijuana are a married couple, and two other pieces from the same show that seem somewhat out of context. But a pair of scenes from the Miami show, "Radio Mambo," hold up beautifully: one about a Haitian immigrant (Siguenza) and his Americanized kid (Montoya), the other about a Norwegian American man (Siguenza) and his Cuban American wife (Salinas) who run a demolition business. Strikingly original, this sketch confirms the value of comics venturing outside the world of show biz.

Excerpts from the Nuyorican show, never seen in L.A., focus on street poetry and salsa dancing, not characters, providing a change of pace and leading smoothly into Montoya's haunting, jazz-inflected riff on San Diego. The evening concludes with an understated tribute to Cesar Chavez.

A clever song about the absence of Chicanos on TV, recorded by Lalo Guerrero, precedes the show, and in a printed artist's statement, the Clash writes about ambitions in other media. But the fact is that the heat generated by these guys in live performance is hard to duplicate in the cooler media. And they've never been hotter than they are in this show.

*

* "Culture Clash Anthology: A 15-Year Retrospective," Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 21. $20-$27. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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