Dark, Dirty, Sublime: Richard Montoya's The River at A.C.T. Costume Shop

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Pak Han Photography
Steve Boss plays some mean guitar (and skeleton) in Montoya's "The River"
Identity is often times difficult to unravel -- there's many layers to define. So what happens when you try to describe the persona of an entire state like California?

Richard Montoya -- founder of renown, Mission-bred political performance group Culture Clash -- has written The River in collaboration with Sean San Jose, co-founder of theater company Campo Santo. The play -- which is actually part of Montoya's larger project, "The Borders Series" -- is designed to help us navigate California's conflicted identity, exploring in equal parts the humor and pathos surrounding California's notorious diversity and the inherent tension it brings.

This isn't a tale of the bawdy Barbary Coast, the 1906 Earthquake, or even the hippies. Montoya's play is set in the here-and-now, forcing the audience to consider the modern-day ties that bind us to a hedonistic society.

Set against the backdrop of the "New River" -- a wending toxic ex-waterway along the border connecting southeast California and Mexico -- a melange of characters and narratives collide, addressing sweeping themes, including the American Dream and the Mexican Diaspora.

The play opens with "Crow," (played by Michael Torres) a hulking Indian of nebulous descent in a sleeveless denim vest and a jaunty top hat stuffed with plumes. His monologue is hallucinatory -- at times hilarious and at times heartbreaking -- as he laments the loss of his friend, Luis. "'Don't fuck with my stash,' I told Luis, and try to be more like the leopard."

The sheer size and volume of Torres's performance is impressive; he is a whirlwind of fear, anger, regret, and charming shyster-dom. The white man doesn't stand a chance in resisting his "authentic" Indian trinkets; his proverbial revenge is preying on the ignorant, greedy tourists that flock to his homeland to see what's left of the people they've displaced.

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Lance and Javier share a picnic of champagne and capers in the Sonoran Desert
The scene abruptly shifts and opens with two (preposterously) gay neon-clad hipsters who loath hipsters, believing themselves to be intellectuals.

The lovers -- one white (Lance, played by Christopher White) and one Salvadorian (Javier, played by Lakin Valdez) -- mince, wrestle, argue and philosophize, waiting for the peak of their "E" to kick-in.

They're celebrating Lance's graduation from his PhD program; the lanky white boy has completed his studies in hip hop culture. As Javier heads to a nearby cave to take a pee, Lance laments, "he thinks he loves me, but we just hate the same people."

Javier returns, screaming, he has discovered a dead body inside the cave. Chaos and misery ensure, culminating with Javier humping the corpse in a kind of possessed ecstatic frenzy.

Sally Ranger (played by a fantastically droll Nora el Samahy) a local Parks Service officer discovers the high as kite ne'er do wells; amid much posturing and cultural put-downs -- "Don't art-speak me boy" -- Sally informs them to stay put while she gets in touch with the authorities. She leaves us wondering why we're alive and this man is dead; death's authority seems arbitrary, without rhythm or reason, blind to our faults and merits alike.

In Sally's absence, the boys discover that the mummified man is Luis (played by Brian Rivera) -- the same man Crow was lamenting in the opening scene -- by rooting through his satchel and discovering a love letter written by Luis to his wife. The audience is immediately plunged into another reality yet again, this time a dream-scape where Luis and his wife (played by the sassy Anna Marie Luera) are still united; their love and repartee is palpably intimate yet tainted with our knowledge of what's to come.

Act II opens in a dusty, hot bar -- or so we imagine -- patronized by the effervescently vulgar Brother Ballard (played by Donald E. Lacy), a Japanese drifter Sydell (played by the stoic Randy Nakano) and of course, a guitar-playing corpse. "The dead aren't the only ones who gather here who don't know they're dead," snickers Brother Ballard.

Ballard, a black, Baptist-preacher gone bad type, is a fantastic foil to the reticent and hauntingly sad Sydell, an ex inmate from a Japanese internment camp. "They turned me into a monster that has to be caged," he says.

The boys soon burst into the bar demanding organic Edamame; Crow throws up in his mouth just watching them kiss.

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Brother Ballard and Crow talk about what to do with the new boys in town...
Ballard takes Crow aside -- "let's speak sotto with arms akimbo and shit" -- and tells him the boys are a kind of rapture, carrying inside them "sacred island negro shit." Sydell has a different perspective; he believes the boys' obvious rejection of "what their fathers gave them" is both courageous and incredibly foolish. The boys have spit in the eye of the past, but recreated themselves from ashes that perhaps weren't theirs to (re) use or re-imagine. It's some heady shit.

Finally, it's decided they've all got to go back to the cave to deal with Luis's body; there in the dunes of the Sonoran Desert our makeshift band of multicultural outcasts, desperadoes and hipsters conduct a death ritual to honor Luis's life and passing. He is the surface on which they all project their desires and disappointments.

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Esme weeps for her dead husband Luis.
Confessions begin streaming out like scalding steam from a tin kettle -- fear not, we won't reveal them here -- and the audience is asked again to consider the things we've lost, loved, and forged ourselves to be.

Coupled with subtle video projection by photographer Joan Osato and a live "score" (a solo guitar) by Charlie Gurke performed by Steve Boss, The River's production is as collaborative and complicated as the content itself.

This Sunday marks the last performance of the run. Tonight, Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m. at the A.C.T. Costume Shop, 1117 Market St. Buy tickets. $25-$30.

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