Richard Montoya's new poetic elegy of a play, "The River," flows like an unruly natural watercourse, rushing through rapids and twisting around curves before eventually finding peace.
Neither simple nor neat, the loose, dreamy narrative features the Sacramento-bred Montoya's harsh and heady satire funneled through a disparate cast of characters brought together by the discovery of a dead body in the desert near San Diego.
Montoya, who co-founded the nationally acclaimed performance trio Culture Clash, writes with uninhibited presence and confidence, though "The River" has more melancholy than much of his earlier work.
Created through support from several collaborative arts organizations, the production, playing at San Francisco's A.C.T. Costume Shop, connects Montoya with the Califas project, which focuses on the journeys of Californians.
Part of Montoya's "border plays" series which examines the dynamic crossings of individuals and cultures in the modern world "The River" also joins Montoya with San Francisco's Campo Santo, which produced the play in tribute to one of its late co-founders, the highly regarded actor and community activist Luis Saguar.
In "The River," two gay hipsters from San Francisco's Mission District stumble upon a shrouded corpse in the desert hills near San Diego.
Complex avatars of the modern world, Lakin Valdez's Javier and Christopher Ward White's Lance are hypersmart and aware, cynical and sad. Javier is an underemployed visual artist, and Lance has just received a doctorate in hip-hop studies. The two chatter endlessly about the ironies inherent in their respective career choices.
They have come to the desert to party, but in truth, they're seeking something anything substantial and honest in their lives.
Though their early scenes drift, sharp performances from the two actors showcase Montoya's jabbing satire and nonstop disdain for self-satisfied, electronically removed, navel-gazing culture.
Javier and Lance discover the wrapped body in a cave during their revels and try to make sense of why it's there. They are eventually joined by Nora el Samahy's comically no-nonsense Sally Ranger, who patrols the desert and who with the two men takes the body to a local bar. There audiences encounter several characters with either emotional or physical connections to the deceased, who we learn was a man called Luis (likely a nod to Saguar).
The audience comes to know Luis (the understated Brian Rivera) in a series of dark flashbacks with his passionate wife, Esme (the compelling Anna Maria Luera).
Luis is a classic everyman simple yet profound and his presence, even in death, galvanizes those who knew him. We learn from Donald E. Lacy Jr.'s Brother Ballard, an old-school prophet in an ill-fitting suit, that Luis was from the other side of the border but was seeking a honest way of life. For this, the group pays tribute to him in a ragged ceremony at the bar.
The spare, black-walled set (visual installation by Ana Teresa Fernandez, visual design by Joan Osato, scenic design by Tanya Orellana) and the original live acoustic guitar music (composed by Charlie Gurke and performed by Steve Boss) contribute to the play's pensive lyricism.
Director Sean San José beautifully wrangles the ambitious project, efficiently modulating Montoya's satire and poetry in an appropriately rough and hopeful manner. There is additional poetry by Joe Montoya Jr., the playwright's brother.
Also an actor, San José will star in another of Richard Montoya's border plays "American Night," which opens the California Shakespeare Festival season next month in Orinda with Rivera in the cast, as well.
Three 1/2 stars
What: Intersection and Campo Santo present the play's world premiere.
Where: A.C.T. Costume Shop, 1117 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays- Sundays, through May 4.
Tickets: $25-$30 in advance, $35 day of performance
Information: (415) 626-2787 ext. 109, or www.theintersection.org
Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.