Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's reviews of Gloria and Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border
The performance troupe Culture Clashwho have toured extensively, but have their roots in the Bay Areaare a trio of Latinx (though they mock that term) theater artists who are able to navigate the narrow path between funny truth and sad, bitter truth in a way that is almost balletic in its grace and delicacy. Culture Clash use funny truth to remind you just how many unfunny things are going on, yet fill you with hope because they're helping ensure we don't harden our collective heart against the pervasive tragedies of our time.
The three performersRichard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas, and Herbert Siguenzahave spent the last 35 years working together, and that familiarity comes blazing through in every moment of Culture Clash (Still) in America, which opened this week in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The show is a collection of sketches, monologues and scenes that mostly stand on their own, but that occasionally connect.
The trio plays the audience like a Stradivarius, pulling us in with tense drama, prickling our skin with a chilling interrogation of a Mexican man in ICE detention, only to defuse that tension with a sly line or a bit of comic physicalityand then to break the tension entirely by demolishing the fourth wall in a way that makes us roar with laughter. Or they will get you guffawing at a goofy and guileless South Florida couple, only to gasp at their take on the killing of Trayvon Martin, bringing you right back to sad, bitter truth.
Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza inhabit a wide range of characters: Latinx, Caucasian, black, Middle Eastern, Asian, men, women, trans... And the amazing thing is, we buy them all. I knew almost nothing about Culture Clash prior to last night (foolish me!), so when I saw Herbert Siguenza as a black preacher, or Richard Montoya as a Muslim man, I thought Siguenza might have some African ancestry (meaning more than what all of us have) from how perfectly he hit that characteristic evangelistic pronunciation of the syllable "ch," or that Montoya just might have been raised Muslim from the fervent and focused way he knelt in prayer.
Just as broad as the characters they play is the range of cultural and political subjects they address. They bring down the house with Salinas (playing an OG "Nuyorican" named Junior) giving a demonstration of how different Latin cultures dance salsa. (Puerto Ricans dance, he says, like they are "wondering if they left the iron on," and demonstrated this via a perfect distracted expression.) Salinas and Siguenza have a tremendously silly time presenting Todd and his wife Francis ("With an 'i,' she says), a Miami couple with a demolition business that benefits from all the cleanup after hurricanes. We laugh as they argue over whether Todd truly loves "Forensic Files," then shudder as they claim only 13 people died in Puerto Rico due to hurricane Maria.
But the troupe wields its satirical sword with equal skill as they skewer a pair of older Berkeley radical grandmothers who frequent the "yerba mate counter at the Berkeley Bowl," get stoned, and complain how very white "Grandma Kush" was upset over not being accepted for membership in the Sisters of Color and survived "seven coup d'etats at KPFA." "It hu-urrt!," she whimpers. They even get in some sharp barbs at themselves as performers plying their trade in the not-so-lucrative world of non-profit theatre: "What a waste of fucking time!"
Culture Clash (Still) in America is satire at its best: cutting with a razor-sharp blade and exposing hypocrisy and hubris. There are some very dark moments in the show, but it's never dreary, and it will leave you well-informed, perhaps a little more empathetic, and wonderfully entertained.
Culture Clash (Still) in America runs through April 5, 2020, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional matinees have been scheduled Thursday, March 5 and Thursday, April 2 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, please visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call the box office at 510-647-2949.