Dope-smokin' do-gooders: Maria (Richard Montoya) 
    and Berta (Ric Salinas).
Dope-smokin' do-gooders: Maria (Richard Montoya) and Berta (Ric Salinas).
T. Charles Erickson

High Culture

Back in September 2004, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa sneaked in under the radar and landed in Houston from California for an eye-blink of a stay at the Alley. If you were lucky enough to stumble into the show, you were treated to an hour and a half of laugh-till-your-jaw-hurts scenes that explored our country as theater rarely can. Unfortunately, the off-season jewel was gone before most Houstonians ever got the word. Lucky for us, the Alley has brought the irreverent comedy back, and this time it's playing as part of the regular season. During the next couple of weeks, these fine performers will again be stirring up lots of laughs and even a little controversy.

Written and performed by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza, the wicked little one-act offers a fast-flowing stream of vignettes based on interviews the trio conducted while traveling the country and performing during the last 20-odd years. The collection of eccentrics who show up here includes an Asian boy who drag-races Japanese cars on the Mexico border, a pair of over-the-hill activists who smoke out on stage and a Muslim father who bemoans the fact that in America his teenage son worships two gods: Allah and Nike.

Disparate as all the characters might seem, a central idea brings them together. They are all part of the fabric of our country, and taken as a whole, they are --we are -- what makes America good. It's our diversity that makes such values as freedom, which these characters talk about a lot, more than a vaporous idea. According to this show, freedom is enacted every day in this country through the multitude of voices speaking out across the landscape. We go from New York, where a "Nuyorican" (or Puerto Rican New Yorker) tells us all about the many kinds of salsa dance (white people do it with their hands fluttering like birds in the air), to Miami, where a biracial couple runs a demolition company and happily pollutes the Everglades with their cast-offs because, after all, the Everglades with be there forever.


Culture Clash in AmeriCCa

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Through January 29. $19-$55.

The best scenes in the show are perhaps the most controversial. In one, Sigüenza plays a transgender sex counselor who tells us all about her soon-to-come gender reassignment operation, which will include a "$50,000 pussy." During the monologue, we get explicit, bizarre, fascinating detail as to how the thing will be made. And though it might leave a few people squirming (especially when she details the ins and outs of what will happen to her penis and testicles), Sigüenza clearly adores this character and plays her as a woman who has learned to embrace and love her identity. She flounces about with an enormously charismatic smile on her face, flirting with the audience and throwing back her head to roar with laughter. On press night she had some people guffawing so hard that Sigüenza sometimes had to hold the lines to allow the audience to quiet down.

Another powerful scene creates one of the few serious moments of the evening. Here three prison inmates discuss the ways America has abandoned them. Without jobs or any hopes of getting them, these tough, angry men make a living the only way they know how. They talk about our culture of consumption and the inequities of our world of haves and have-nots, and their sorrowful hopelessness and utter disenfranchisement ought to chill any thoughtful watcher to the bone. Knowing that these lines are based on real interviews makes them even more gut-kicking. For all its wealth, America has managed to leave a whole group of people behind. And as one of the men says, some actually feel more at home in prison than out of it.

That these three actors capture all these characters on a mostly empty stage says a lot about their performing flexibility. Rising up behind them is an American flag that occasionally changes with Clint Allen's lights. When the Muslim man speaks, a crescent appears. When the prisoners appear in a row on stage, they stand under bars of light and shadow. Montoya has created a compelling soundtrack that includes everything from a helicopter flying overhead to '70s acid rock. All these technical aspects add depth without taking away from the show's simple truths.

A clearly left-wing brand of politics drives this show. But there's nothing cynical in its celebration of America's diversity. Ours is a country full of immigrants and countless choices. Culture Clash shows us that the best way to deal with the fabulous collage that is America is to love it for all it offers.


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