For a trio of such talented, creative and politically outspoken agent provocateurs, Culture Clash has been suspiciously subdued recently, at least on its home turf, Southern California.Though no strangers to Orange County, San Diego or, of course, Los Angeles County audiences, the three members haven't stepped on a local stage together since 2010.
It's not that they've been hibernating, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza worked with Richard Montoya on his epic mashup of American History, American Nights: The Ballad of Juan Jose, which debuted at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in 2010 and has been produced several times since. Montoya also adapted his 2006 Los Angeles-oriented play Power and Water, into a film, which opens in May. Siguenza has been teaching at UC Irvine and working with his one-man show about Pablo Picasso. And Salinas has been directing in San Francisco and Seattle, teaching directing at UCLA and is starring in the first play about Salvadorian gangs, which opens in April at the Los Angeles Theater Center. But while they're all busy, a bonafide Culture Clash show that embodies the heart and soul of a troupe that has spent much of the past 30 years on the road listening to people's stories and then spinning them into raucous, sobering theater, has been absent. Until last weekend.
As part of its answer to a huge theater fringe festival you'd see in New York, Los Angeles or Edinburgh, the third annual Segerstrom Center's Off Center Festival includes eight events or performances spread over two weekends. There are poets, performance artists Latin jazz quintets, German punk-comedy bands and other decidedly non-Andrew Lloyd Webber cash cows on display, but the highlight, at least from this perch in hell, is the return of Culture Clash to its roots.
The show is called Keep Culture and Clash On: 30 Years of Revolutionary Comedy Remastered. It's a world premiere, but to call it brand new isn't accurate. It drops a lot of references to Orange County, but to call it site-specific isn't accurate. But to call it an example of a successful troupe trafficking on the success of older work, also isn't accurate.
As the name suggests, this is remastered Culture Clash. Directed by Montoya, the piece pulls older bits and dusts them off, gives them a good spit shine, augments them with some new material, and marches it in a loosely-knit 90 minutes that actually shows how well so many of these sketches, some of which are more than 25 years old, still hold up.
Fans of Culture Clash will recognize many of the characters that were pulled from older site-specific plays that Culture Clash has done in locales ranging from San Francisco and San Diego, to Washington D.C. and Miami. Like Siguenza's flamboyant San Francisco transgender, who now is not just talking about hormone therapy, but provides some very detailed facts about just how a penis is transformed into a vagina (hint, every man with huevos will cringe at least once…). We've got the white married couple from Miami who own a demolition business not only discussing the money they make from hurricanes but also Trayvon Martin. We have the two older white women activists from the 1960s, getting together for grass and wine and reminiscing, but also mentioning the Kelly Thomas protests in Fullerton. And quick references to everything from South Santa Ana (the troupe's reference to South Coast Plaza), to that hotbed of radical activism in Orange County, Mission Viejo (which has four radicals), are scattered throughout.
The high point of the play blends new and familiar. A photo montage of Jose Montoya, Richard's father, who passed away last year, is shown. underscored by a recording of him performing his poem, "Layover in Mazatlan." The elder Montoya was a legendary Chicano artist and activist, and his poem is followed by his son asking an older poet to read him a poem. Siguenza delivers a powerful mediation on life, death and heaven (where, surprisingly, it's not very white; it's actually very much like the Earth we all live on) written by Vietnam veteran Richard Talavera, pulled from an earlier CC show. One can only imagine the feelings in the younger Montoya's heart as he stands on stage and participates in such a stirring, eloquent requiem to his father.
The throughline of the show may point to the different paths the three members of CC have walked the past few years. It begins with an incredibly graceful and talented dancer, Claudia Gomez, solo on stage, with the three Fedora-clad culture clashers, looking like 1940s gangsters, walking on stage. Montoya explains this is his muse and he's going out on his own. Siguenza stalks off in a rage, while Salinas, alone on stage, pleads with his departed members to remember what they do best: the telling of stories they accumulate by being on the road. That's returned to twice during the play, with Siguenza now "owning" the muse and focusing on his painting, and then Salinas tearing it up with the dancer, now claiming her as her own.
But they reunite at the end, in the office of a high-powered Hollywood executive while they make an unsuccessful pitch about the latest Culture Clash endeavor.
Whether there will be a spate of new Culture Clash offerings in the future, or whether these guys, who have been together now for 30 years, will only work together sporadically, if even that, is up to them. What we do know is that anyone who had the pleasure of seeing them this weekend experienced three fiery, passionate, funny and incredibly committed master storytellers doing what they do so well.