“Underneath it all,” Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash once said of his gifted comedy trio, “we have the same rage, the same anger … the rage of being left out, disenfranchised.” Siguenza, Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas display that irreverent, iconoclastic attitude throughout “Chavez Ravine,” a Mark Taper world premiere by the group. Director Lisa Peterson establishes an enjoyable madcap world of clashing characters and brings to life a legendary Los Angeles story about Latinos uprooted from their homes by powerful politicians.
Making only minor changes in the tale’s timeline, the script is substantially accurate with facts and flavor. In 1949 the L.A. City Housing Authority approved the construction of a Chavez Ravine high-rise, forcing the removal of more than a thousand livid landowners. Wealthy businessmen, led by L.A. Times publisher Norman Chandler, destroyed the building proposal in May 1953, with support from Norris Poulson, the yes-man they had backed for mayor.
Frank Wilkinson, the on-site contractor accused of communism and sent to prison, is one of the production’s key roles, and Montoya illuminates every facet of the role.
The script corrects a long-believed myth — that the Dodgers were responsible for driving residents out, when in truth Dodger Stadium didn’t open until 1962. Multiple maneuvers and negotiations between Mayor Poulson (Salinas) and Walter O’Malley (Montoya) are hilariously depicted.
Most of the roles are played by Montoya, Siguenza and Salinas, and all three are skilled enough actors to make each personality more than a one-dimensional type.
Their kooky, kinetic joy in performing is contagious, expertly matched by Eileen Galindo in a variety of female parts ranging from the earnest activist Maria to Millie Miller, an aggressive reporter who demands, “Give me the straight Danish, not the Tutti Frutti.” Galindo integrates so seamlessly with the troupe that she could easily qualify as a fourth Culture Clash member.
“Chavez Ravine” has weaknesses. Structure is episodic, and the rotating presence of 51 personalities often gives it an overloaded, unbalanced feeling. As a narrative, there’s minimal suspense, and the first act lacks dramatic momentum. Much of the humor is in Spanish, a problem for those who don’t know the language.
Clever schtick and skillfully arranged musical interludes by John Avila are sometimes called upon to provide cosmetic coverup for unfocused stretches, along with Don Normark’s strikingly authentic sepia photographs.
Second act, however, is a hell-raising home run from start to finish. As nerdy Mayor Poulson, Salinas has a delightfully daft scene sparring with O’Malley, tap dancing, ripping off his shirt and then his shorts.
Siguenza, chewing on tobacco and scratching his crotch, is a wildly funny Fernando Valenzuela. Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” is done with an ideal blend of frustration and anger.
The crowd’s adrenaline level is raised when invited to sing along on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as peanuts are tossed around, and the sight of Montoya in long braids and angelic white gown, suspended on wires as the “Dodger Dog Girl,” ranks high in the annals of lunatic farce.
Strongest and most meaningful moment of the evening is when Eileen Galindo’s Maria expresses show’s philosophy, “We hoped to create a culture of resistance,” and pertinently points out the urgent need to fight for causes we believe in.