Longstanding L.A. Troupe Still Serious About Being Funny

For almost a quarter century, three L.A.-based comic actors known as Culture Clash have used sharp satire to skewer politics and culture. Their appeal has broadened from Chicano radicals in the early days to ethnically mixed audiences from the suburbs. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: In an aging theater just south of Hollywood and Vine, the curtain rises on a new production of "Zorro in Hell." Actor Ricardo Montalbán, the theater's namesake, delivers a recorded welcome to the audience.

Ricardo Montalbán (on stage): If your cell phone should ring during the show, or you make a text message, you will experience the wrath of Khan.

Guzman-Lopez: This venue opened 80 years ago with a staging of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," a drama about the dark side of the American dream. Culture Clash's take on the Zorro legend plunges today's theatergoers into the Chicano side of the American dream.

Unknown Actor (on stage): Why did you threaten the governor?
Actor Richard Montoya: Because I'm bicultural, bi-curious, and bipolar.

Guzman-Lopez: Ric Salinas of Culture Clash says the new play is a return to the group's slapstick roots.

Ric Salinas: When we first started, it was all fun and games, we would make fools of ourselves. We'd be angry. We were angry Chicanos, Latino, Salvadoreño comics and writers. You fast forward 23 years, we're still the same guys, but now we have the tools and the means, and we have experience.

Guzman-Lopez: A lot has happened during those 23 years. Public TV's "Great Performances" broadcast Culture Clash's "A Bowl of Beings." The trio created theater from the angst and hope of the people they interviewed in Miami, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.

Then, they focused on L.A. The play "Chavez Ravine" told the stories of people who, more than 50 years ago, lived on the land Dodger Stadium occupies now. A more recent work, "Water & Power," explored political and moral corruption. The lead characters were brothers, one a politician on the rise, the other a police officer at the end of his rope. Culture Clash member Richard Montoya wrote the play.

Montoya: I think "Water & Power" was mostly critical of a kind of a complacent Hispanic middle class that isn't quite raising their children maybe the way you and I were. And "Zorro in Hell" is also a call to action of getting people off their couches and away from their Play Stations and taking some sort of action.

Guzman-Lopez: The critical success Culture Clash has enjoyed onstage, from D.C.'s Arena Stage to the Berkeley Rep to the Mark Taper Forum, hasn't translated to television and movies.

A sketch comedy show the troupe developed for Fox Television 14 years ago didn't get national carriage. Plans for a Culture Clash film haven't materialized. Culture Clash member Herbert Siguenza blames a Hollywood glass ceiling.

Herbert Siguenza: I truly believe if we weren't as political and as real and as brown as we are we'd probably be a real famous comedy group.

Guzman-Lopez: So the group's since focused on live theater, and on cementing a legacy. Academia is helping. Last semester, UCLA Chicano Studies professor David Garcia invited the three members to teach his students about turning the stuff of life into plays.

Students interviewed neighbors, fellow bus riders, and street vendors. The interviews, Garcia says, generated some transcripts 20 pages long.

David Garcia: And then Culture Clash challenged them to narrow their transcript down to about five pages, and from those five pages create a five-minute monologue. And so one of the things the students got was that everyone's story has value, everyone's story has importance, and that we all contribute to the making of this country.

Guzman-Lopez: The members of Culture Clash say they still oughtta be in pictures. But for now, Richard Montoya says, they're expanding the themes in their plays.

Montoya: We should be writing material for more people and women and issues that do pertain to the gay and lesbian community.

Guzman-Lopez: The stage set in the group's next show, Salinas believes, could be as simple as a big bed with room for three men and three women.

Salinas: I think our next play is going to be about sex, about how Latinos deal with sex. I think that's a subject we haven't talked about. That's going to be interesting; the "Penis Monologues" or something.

Guzman-Lopez: And as always, Salinas, Siguenza and Montoya will mine their own lives for the source material.