Palestine, New Mexico -- Theater Review

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Richard Montoya and his two sly pals at Culture Clash, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, are up to some of their old tricks in "Palestine, New Mexico," making its debut at the Mark Taper Forum.

In 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.

Set on an American Indian reservation in New Mexico, the story centers on a highly distressed army captain, Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter), just back from Afghanistan who is trying to unravel a mystery surrounding one of her soldiers. Ray Birdsong, son of the tribe's chief (Russell Means, not quite into the part yet), has died under suspicious circumstances. Who really killed Ray -- the enemy or was it "friendly" fire? Was Ray a traitor? What's in the last letter he wrote home? Who is Suarez?

As the captain, who is off her meds but on a little peyote or mescalin from time to time, tries to get to the bottom of these questions, she runs into a slew of strange, whimsical characters, several of whom would be right at home in a George Lopez special. Bronson, the chief's bodyguard, is played by Salinas, and Top Hat, a sort of tribal kibitzer who rides a silver bike, is played by Montoya.

Catherine also runs into an odd subplot centering on the blood relationship of Jews -- the lost tribes of Israel -- and American Indians. If you can picture a large saguayo cactus running around wearing a star of David, you'll have some idea of how Montoya's mind works. (Or, for that matter, the resemblance between a small, many-pronged cactus and a menorah.)

What many of the characters seem to share is a profound cultural-identity problem. They either embody or appear to be working out how best to assimilate their ancestral antecedents and tribal customs with larger American cultural values. This theme connects to a central point made about Ray's death in Afghanistan. Apparently, Ray saw the entire country as a collection of tribes not that different from his own. This made him somewhat sympathetic to their plight, at least in cultural and religious terms, if not political; an interesting point worth exploring, perhaps, but not in this play.

Montoya wraps everything up with a neat ecumenical ending. It isn't in the least convincing, but the show is so well-intentioned it's hard too complain too much.

Lisa Peterson's cast is competent but spotty, with Geraldine Keams coming off best as Maria 15, the tribe's medicine man who knows where most of the skeletons are buried.

Kudos to Rachel Hauck's finely layered and etched rock design and Alexander V. Nichols imaginative projections. Both manage to capture the stark beauty of the desert and allegorical qualities of the play better than the play itself.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through Jan. 24)
Cast: Kirsten Potter, Russell Means, Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza, Geraldine Keams, Julia Jones, Justin Rain
Playwright: Richard Montoya
Director: Lisa Peterson
Scenic designer: Rachel Hauck
Lighting/projection designer: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume designer: Christopher Acebo
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