Review: ‘Carpa Clash’

Comedy trio Culture Clash has risen from San Francisco street theater to become darlings of Los Angeles's cultural elite to -- probably somewhere between those extremes -- a weekly series on Fox. Back onstage at the Mark Taper Forum (where they played, briefly, in 1992), the group has mounted a presentation that's heavily political. Rife with interesting ideas, it will still strike many viewers as an overlong and preachy tract.

Comedy trio Culture Clash has risen from San Francisco street theater to become darlings of Los Angeles’s cultural elite to — probably somewhere between those extremes — a weekly series on Fox. Back onstage at the Mark Taper Forum (where they played, briefly, in 1992), the group has mounted a presentation that’s heavily political. Rife with interesting ideas, it will still strike many viewers as an overlong and preachy tract.

Format is a “carpa,” an old-time traveling tent show, with Culture Clash members playing three clowns acting out various sketches. Aiding them is San Francisco-based comic Marga Gomez, who has appeared onstage with the trio and guested on their TV series.

Interlocked sketches tell the story of a man (Richard Montoya as Hooter) seeking to maintain his cultural identity in the face of oppressive cops played by Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza as characters right out of a James Ellroy novel. There are many digressions and numerous peripheral characters portrayed by the three in a style that’s more reminiscent of the Firesign Theater than Cheech & Chong, though there are elements of both acts.

Gomez aides in the sketches and is featured in her own semi-autobiographical monologue, a high point of the show. (She was such a failure in showbiz, “Mimi” allows, that “nobody would book me — not even the Chevy Chase people”).

Show begins with a “miracle play” that sounds like a Latinized Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara routine as Maria tells husband Joe that she’s pregnant, though the two have never slept together. Life isn’t good: Joe has been laid off his job as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Maria may be forced to return to selling oranges on the street.

Furthermore, even if their child turns out to be the Son of God, he’ll be deported as an illegal alien by Gov. Pete Wilson.

As “Carpa Clash” progresses, it becomes confusing to those unfamiliar with Chicano culture (though most of the Spanish is framed in such a way as to translate itself) and frequently rather self-indulgent. Best moments mostly seem to involve Siguenza: a parody of Neil Diamond’s “America” and the story of Fluffy’s early life in the circus among them. The latter piece involves an acrobat on horseback who provides the evening’s funniest sight).

Strewn along the way are fleeting refs Anglo cultural icons.

Music combines prerecorded tracks and live performance by accordionist Dennis Gurwell and guitarist Lorenzo Martinez. Imaginative sets (Edward E. Haynes Jr. and artist GRONK) and colorful costumes (Patssi Valdez) are a definite plus.

Two-hour, intermissionless perf ends with a piece taking place at the funeral of United Farm Workers president Caesar Chavez. It’s obviously heartfelt and central to Culture Clash’s politics but may strike even audience members sympathetic to their cause as overlong by a good third.

Carpa Clash

(Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles;742 seats; $ 35 top)

Production

The Mark Taper Forum presents a play in one act written and performed by Culture Clash with Marga Gomez. Directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela.

Creative

Sets, Edward E. Haynes Jr.; scenic design, GRONK; costumes, Patssi Valdez; lights, Jose Lopez; sound, Mark Friedman; producer, Corey Beth Madden. Opened, reviewed Dec. 5, 1993. Runs through Dec. 23.

Cast

Sparky...Ric Salinas Fluffy...Herbert Siguenza Hooter...Richard Montoya Mimi...Marga Gomez
With: Dennis Gurwell, Lorenzo Martinez.
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