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`Water & Power' plugs into L.A. greed

Culture Clash's exciting if unwieldy Taper piece marks a change in direction for the group.

August 08, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

As any fan of "Chinatown" knows, the history of power in this town can be revealed by following something even more revelatory than the money: water. Control that and you can call yourself king of the desert.

The most memorable scene in Culture Clash's "Water & Power," which had its world premiere Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, involves a fight for property around the Los Angeles River. Dakin Matthews, sporting a flashy white suit and equally flashy ruthlessness, plays a greedy developer (imagine Donald Trump crossed with Truman Capote) out to exploit the personal vulnerability of a state senator (Richard Montoya), who's trying to pass legislation that will keep the area green for his East L.A. constituency.

While wining and dining at downtown's popular Water Grill, which has stayed open late expressly for the delectation of Matthews' character (known as the Fixer), the two men negotiate their crooked behind-the-scenes deal. A man who knows where all the bodies are buried, the Fixer doesn't pull any punches with his demands: He wants to convert undeveloped waterfront parkland into a gated community of condos complete with "gringo hipsters walking little dogs," a Coffee Bean and, of course, IKEA.

"L.A. can still be a scary town," the Fixer says, a line that coming from him is the equivalent of a Hummer complaining about the smog.

Few moments can match this one in terms of skewering political clarity and brazen theatricality. Still, the piece marks an exciting venture for Culture Clash, a movement away from satiric sketch comedy to more traditional drama.

Admirers of the group's unique blend of Chicano-inflected, spoken-word-erupting performance art needn't worry that they've lost sight of their signature gifts. "Water & Power" daringly tries to bundle these elements into a theatrical experience that veers inevitably toward tragedy. Aristotle might not approve of the unwieldy result, but it's a significant step in an ambitious new direction.

The title characters, Water and Power, have been nicknamed by their father, a ditch-digger for the Department of Water and Power, who dreams that his twin sons will one day join the Westside movers and shakers without losing sight of their Eastside roots.

It's a tall order, but both have become public servants on the inside track: Gilbert Garcia, a.k.a. Water, is the California state senator trying to push through that green-space bill for East L.A., while Gabriel (Herbert Siguenza), a.k.a. Power, is a police officer with a bead on the criminal activity rampant both in and out of government.

The action begins on an ominously stormy night. Entering a dark and dingy room at the Motel Paradise, Gilbert is assaulted by his brother, who's holed up with a cache of weapons and drugs and obviously not expecting a family visitor. Once he calms down, Gabriel explains that there's been a "breakdown" of some kind, though it's hard to tell if he's paranoid from all the coke he's snorting or the actual target of something sinister.

Turns out he has murdered somebody. Gabriel's confession comes at the end of the first scene, though it takes Gilbert a while to discover the real motivation and figure out how to help him escape the payback that's set in motion for the crime. The solution will have him literally groveling at the feet of the all-powerful Fixer, but then what choice does he have given the oath of sibling loyalty he gave to his father?

The play, written by Montoya and directed by Lisa Peterson, unfolds as a series of thunderous clashes intermixed with childhood recollections and slightly rambling poetic musings. Ultimately, the individual parts are more gripping than the whole. "Water & Power" has trouble assimilating its various hyperactive impulses into a well-told tale. The plot is certainly compelling enough, but its delivery has difficulty settling into a confident rhythm.

The bombardment of topical local references, a Culture Clash specialty and a source of easy guffaws, distracts from the narrative flow. From a hot-off-the-press Mel Gibson crack to jabs at elected officials (from Gloria Molina to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) to jokes about convoluted bus routes, Scientology and the narrow aisles of Trader Joe's, the work keeps elbow-nudging its audience with Angeleno hominess.

At times, the politics seem as insular as a county board meeting. It's not simply that the play is intended for an L.A. audience steeped in municipal mayhem. The background of the Garcia brothers' conflicted public consciousness is never adequately fleshed out.

Gilbert makes fun of his own struggle ("No, I've been a Chicano since 1998 -- well, I stopped in '95, and after recovery I started again"). But the resonance for the brothers of the Spanish song "De Colores" or the example of Miguel Contreras is assumed rather than fully addressed. You're either on board or you aren't -- a sign that the writing hasn't created a self-contained world.

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