Not often does Gordon Davidson jump to the stage at the end of a performance to congratulate the cast of a play, but he did on opening night of Culture Clash's latest political satirical instructional pastiche. For Davidson the play represents a longed-for accomplishment of the Center Theatre Group's primary mission: to reflect and enrich the community.
Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) has taken the long, complicated, rambling story behind the Dodgers' acquisition of land that once belonged to descendants of immigrants escaping the Mexican Revolution and fashioned an involving and revealing exposé of the effects of political whim on innocent lives. To tell the story, they have created the Ruiz family, who reflect the various attitudes of residents in Chavez Ravine. The Clash, Eileen Galindo, and others portray both fictional and factual characters intermingling in the saga that lasted almost 10 years. Although 51 personages are represented in the play, one character, the real-life site manager Frank Wilkinson (Montoya), captures our sympathies even more than the central family. The reason must be that his fight on behalf of the utopian low-cost housing project that occasioned the Chavez Ravine land condemnation ended with his ruin. His story is the stuff of tragedy.
Chavez Ravine represents somewhat of a departure from Culture Clash's usual format. The need to provide much specific information necessitates that a narrative thread wind a bit more tightly around the material. Brechtian storytelling techniques facilitate this huge undertaking. Unlike most linear narratives, Chavez Ravine follows a circuitous, counterclockwise route to its conclusion, rather like the game of baseball itself. The evening opens with a marvelously conceived recreation of a typical day at Dodger stadium. It's 1981, and the city is mad for Fernando Valenzuela (played implacably by Siguenza). He is unaware of his surroundings' past, but the ghost of former residents approach with the story.
The long, fact-packed first act gives way in the second to more familiar Culture Clash territory, punctuated by shtick and standup devices. At one point a Chicano comedian regales us with tasteless racial jokes. A set piece of the Mayor (Montoya) and Walter O'Malley (Salinas) in a helicopter (hand-cranked by Siguenza) is hilarious. The showstopper is a precise recreation of Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's on First" that seamlessly segues into Spanish. But the highlight of Act Two is the seventh-inning stretch, which has the audience on its feet singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Culture Clash takes on various personas, real and imaginary, with accurate mimicry. Galindo, too, rapidly switches characterizations, and her Roz Wyman is priceless. Even the band (Randy Rodarte, Scott Rodarte, John Avila) is pressed into service, composer/arranger Avila providing several auxiliary characters, as well. Roberto Alcaraz, Minerva Garcia, and Edgar Landa help where needed.
Lisa Peterson's direction keeps the meandering tale moving along. The key part of Rachel Hauck's set design, high screens featuring vintage photographs of the ravine at different periods of its destruction, help tell this towering tale. Christopher Acebo's costumes have to be easily donned or shed; he has created a series of gassy hats that helps accomplish the task. Lighting by Anne Militello is unobtrusive, quietly solving a series of problems (lighting on the screens is one) that would daunt someone less accomplished.
At conclusion of the evening, we emerge with a fairly balanced understanding of a complex land acquisition. Ultimately, the Dodger organization had little to do with devastation of a way of life. After all, as one of the ghosts tells Valenzeula, "We all love baseball."
"Chavez Ravine," presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. May 30-July 6. $31-45. (213) 628-2772.