The River Rolls Deep

There’s almost no point to reviewing The River. It’s not that kind of play. A world premiere play by Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, The River is a tribute to Luis Saguar, the late cofounder of Intersection for the Arts’ resident theater company Campo Santo, written for and performed by that company. As such, it’s an intensely personal project and ultimately feels very much like an in-joke.  Maybe you had to have been there, you had to have known him, to understand what the heck is going on here.

Donald E. Lacy Jr. and Michael Torres in The River. Photo by Pak Han.

There isn’t really a plot per se. Two San Franciscan art school hipsters go to the desert for a picnic, drug trip and private sex party, only to discover a dead body in a nearby cave, all wrapped up in a shroud. Enter a whole lot of colorful characters who knew the dead guy and come to praise him, and maybe even eventually to bury him. The corpse is called Luis “the Jaguar,” and there’s a lot of talk about the river as a metaphor for…something, and how it consumed him when he was trying to get back to his true love in Matamoros, Mexico. (“Maybe this river you speak of is the multicultural promise of America?,” self-styled hip-hop scholar Lance asks. “Fuck that,” Ranger Sally replies. “It’s a shithole.”) For a story that’s not going anywhere and seems content to stay right where it is, it can be pretty hard to follow.

That said, much of Montoya’s script is very funny. While most of it is a lot of oddballs just congregating, many of the characters are hilariously larger-than-life, and director Sean San José’s staging gives the proceedings a dreamlike quality appropriate to what is ultimately a piece of ritual theater.

Tanya Orellana’s intriguing set incorporates piles of gravel around the corners of the stage area, with many letters to lost loved ones wedged into the pebbles around a sort of shrine with novena candles. The letters are part of the Califas project of the Triangle Lab, a joint initiative of Intersection and California Shakespeare Theater, that also includes a production of Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose at Cal Shakes in May-June and Luis Alfaro’s Alleluia, the Road at Intersection in November, both directed by Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone. Behind the letters and candles, Steve Boss sits on a platform playing haunting bluesy accompaniment (composed by Charlie Gurke) with skull makeup painted on his face.

Montoya plays a lot with broad stereotypes in the play, especially with the San Francisco interlopers into desert life. Christopher Ward White’s Lance and Lakin Valdez’s Javier are nettlesome, screamingly loud gay art school hipsters in bright colors who call each other “girl” and routinely say things like, “Is it amazeballs?” and “Bitch packed champagne pour moi.” They talk a lot about how much they hate hipsters while obviously being particularly egregious specimens of the type themselves. Lance is a white guy who just got his PhD in hip-hop culture and says “holla” without irony, insofar as he does anything without irony, and Javier is a Salvadoran-American guy who just wants to have some fun and doesn’t want to get too serious. When they find the corpse at the height of their drug trip, one of them humps it.

Christopher Ward White and Lakin Valdez in The River. Photo by Pak Han.

White and Valdez do a good job playing them in all their obnoxiousness, but the more these guys rattle on the more you wish they’d please stop. When they first strayed into the dark cave, I was really hoping they wouldn’t come out again. The trouble is, these are the people we’ll be spending the most time with. But their very appallingness is sometimes funny, especially when the joke’s on them. “I’ll be the first guy in history to be asked to leave hip-hop,” Lance says, and some of his attempts at spoken-word poetry are hysterical.

Wearing a top hat with feathers stuck in the brim and a denim jacket with torn-off sleeves, Michael Torres’s gravel-voiced Crow is a dim and volatile hustler who’s always trying to sell you something, the self-proclaimed “worst Indian ever.” Actually, he says, it was Luis who called him that, “and I didn’t kick his ass because it sounded so beautiful I figured it must be true.” Torres’s admixture of drunken befuddlement and belligerence as Crow is often priceless.

Nora el Samahy’s park ranger Sally Ranger is an amusing mix of Joe Friday strait-lacedness, with a fast-talking stream of law-enforcement jargon, and wry and occasionally bawdy commentary. Brian Rivera and Anna Maria Luera have some playful, romantic fantasy sequences together as Luis and his lost love, dancing and retelling a favorite story of his childhood.

Still more characters turn up in the second act: Donald E. Lacy Jr. is often funny as a charismatic, strutting, Ebonics-spouting con man who taught Crow his hustle and talks a lot (and I mean a lot) about being a veteran of the San Francisco theater scene, with shout-outs to departed colleagues like “Brother Quentin and Brother Stanley” and a ton of random tossed off in-jokes that aren’t even quite jokes (“Who the fuck are you guys, A Traveling Jewish Theater?”;“I was just telling the Shotgun Players here…”). I don’t really know what the deal is with Randall Nakano’s gruff, crusty farmer Sydell, except that he’s a serious dude with somewhat halting speech who didn’t have time for any nonsense, which means the airheaded hipsters are in for a good dressing-down. “You have no gravitas,” he says gravely, to which Javier gasps, “Ouch!”

Montoya’s writing in the play is dense, packed with abstruse, poetic soliloquys and somewhat florid, quippy dialogue. (Two very different characters say “Fuck you softly” at different points in the play, when it’s hard enough to believe that one person says it.) But even if all the riffs and ritual don’t make much sense, at least to the uninitiated, there’s still plenty to entertain folks who may feel like they’ve stumbled in on a memorial to someone they didn’t even know. Like the crafty hucksters in the play, it draws you in.

The River
Through May 4
Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo
The ACT Costume Shop
1119 Market Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #40 of 2013, attended April 15.

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