U.S. Army Captain Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) has just arrived in her home country after witnessing way too much bloodshed in Afghanistan. Having trekked to an Indian reservation in the Southwest, where red rocks loom all around, Siler is on a mission to deliver a note from Birdsong (Justin Rain), a soldier in her platoon who gave her the note on his deathbed to give to his father, a stoic tribal chief (Russell Means).
So begins the convoluted story of Palestine, New Mexico, a new play penned by Richard Montoya, one of three members of the Chicano sketch comedy troupe Culture Clash (the other two members are Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) now on stage at the Mark Taper Forum. Though there’s some powerful commentary about war, religion, and cultural identity here, the script suffers a bigger identity crisis than any of the thinly drawn characters.
We root for Siler to find Chief Birdsong, because lots of locals are trying to stop her. Gun-wielding tribesmen soon loom over her, threatening to shoot to kill if she doesn’t scram from their sacred desert. Thus, she’s left one war to fight another. Her quest to find Chief Birdsong is continually thwarted, and when she does meet him, he doesn’t seem to care one puff of a peace pipe about his son’s dying words. Though letter delivery is a big part of Siler’s journey, she’s also obsessed with uncovering the truth about Birdsong’s death, a truth she hopes to unveil in his homeland. She loved this soldier, mostly because he was a peacemaker, a unifying spirit with respect for all races, religions, tribes and people. If only the Taliban could take a page out of Birdsong’s book, peace might have a fleeting chance in the war-torn region from which Siler has returned.
But the journey gets mired in stylistic missteps, taking the audience on a jarring ride from melodramatic moments to peyote-induce mind trips to clowning comedy. The comedy wins out, not a surprising fact due to Culture Clash’s comic expertise, but it doesn’t save the show from being a confusing head-scratcher overall.
The usual Los Angeles references that come with Culture Clash comedies abound, and it’s always fun to laugh at these regional nuggets. Montoya is a joy to watch on stage, but his script needs a large dose of retooling if he wants this one to get anything close to the acclaim won by Water and Power.
Tickets for Palestine, New Mexico start at $20 and are available by calling 213.628.2772 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Through January 24 at the Mark Taper Forum.