During the hallucinogenic climax of “Palestine, New Mexico” – the new Mark Taper Forum commission from Culture Clash – an Army captain sharing her combat flashbacks from Afghanistan suddenly conjures up Elvis in Arab robes from “Harum Scarum,” as a giant cactus puppet strides in like John Wayne. The campy moment sums up the show’s ungainly amalgam of outrageous imagery and serious subtext. Yet, at only 80 minutes, it never wears out its welcome, and its very earnestness conveys a brotherhood message not inappropriate to this holiday season.
Kirsten Potter endeavors to find dimensionality in her stock role as Capt. Siler, a disillusioned warrior seeking closure and redemption in the New Mexico desert’s red rock hills, ancestral home of a deceased PFC under her Kabul command. Ray Birdsong died mysteriously while under suspicion of treasonous dealings with the enemy; another GI from these parts, Suarez (Justin Rain), is AWOL and may have been involved.
Having traveled thousands of miles (Potter could work on the heat and exhaustion) to be surrounded once again by hostile faces and wielded guns, Capt. Siler believes only Ray’s father (Russell Means), the local tribal chief, can pull away the veils of uncertainty. And in passing he may be able to help with her own father issues.
Though “Palestine” summons up any number of tribal culture clashes including the Jewish diaspora (note ironic title), as a dramatic event it’s paper-thin, and helmer Lisa Peterson doesn’t exactly ratchet up the suspense. Still, she leaves room for a gallery of pungent and often moving character portraits: Geraldine Keams’ tribal medico evoking “South Pacific”‘s Bloody Mary; Herbert Siguenza’s slow-witted but good-hearted lawman; Julia Jones’ delicate Dacotah, the widow Birdsong aching for answers.
Room is also set aside for far too much silliness, notably when Culture Clashers Siguenza, Ric Salinas and playwright Richard Montoya dodder in as geriatric Three Stooges for a pointless convocation of VFW members.
But the troupe shows admirable restraint in not overindulging their penchant for semi-improvised off-topic zingers. (The cheap Tiger Woods joke, however, ought to go.)
And all the buildup to the chief’s entrance is justified by Means’ enormous gravitas and authenticity. Like the character he plays, Means is a man of his time who seems eminently in touch with those of earlier times, his own ’70s involvement with the American Indian Movement movingly evoked in the chief’s reminiscences.
Palestine” is complicated but thematically quite simple: there’s hope for solving all manner of tribal conflicts, on this side of the globe and every other. Through sheer sincerity, Peterson and the Clashers convey a peace on earth/good will to men message other so-called “Christmas shows” would envy — one especially welcome as a troubled 2009 fades into history.
Beyond the projections in the psychedelic vision quest, Alexander V. Nichols creates numerous stunning effects against and atop Rachel Hauck’s sturdy arrangement of stone and sky.