Culture Clash targets Miami for merriment

Review: Troupe behind `Radio Mambo' delivers humor with bite

November 17, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You don't get much more multicultural than a Chicano/Latino theater troupe portraying blacks, Cubans, Jews, Haitians and Anglos in a show about Miami.

But politically correct as that might sound, the three men who make up this particular troupe, Culture Clash, pride themselves on their incorrectness. And indeed, there's probably something to offend just about everybody in "Radio Mambo," which is receiving a lively Washington premiere at Arena Stage.

There are also, however, elements just about everybody will identify with or at least recognize, and that's one of the strengths of this 90-minute show, which tackles subjects ranging from the immigrant experience to racism and ecology.

Created from interviews with scores of Miamians, which were then assembled into a collage presentation, "Radio Mambo" provides a very specific -- though none-too-flattering -- picture of Miami. To a degree, it's also a portrait of the United States in miniature.

The show's other great strength is in the finely honed performances of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, the three members of Culture Clash, a 15-year-old California-based company that started out doing comedy but has always had a strong political streak.

In two sequences, Salinas portrays a soft-spoken Cuban woman called "Notion Lady," who is distressed at having been the victim of armed robbers but remains defiant. "Whatever they took is irrelevant," she insists. "I came to this country with three dresses. So as long as I have more than three dresses, I'm ahead of the game!"

Siguenza gives an equally proud portrayal of a Haitian man who claims to have found the answer to living the peaceful life in Miami. "I never suffered from so-called segregation, because I stay in my territory," he says, without a hint of irony.

The two showiest segments are the funniest ones, and -- though the characters in both are more caricatures -- they also have their disturbing moments. In a section called "Natural Born Tree Killers," Siguenza and Salinas portray a mixed married couple, Anglo and Cuban, who run a demolition company that thrives on major disasters. With a long gray wig tumbling out of a baseball cap and his hairy belly exposed, Siguenza's crude, jovial, self-satisfied character blithely admits dumping debris in the Everglades. "Sure, where else are you going to put it?" he says with a laugh.

In an earlier scene, Montoya dons a white sport jacket, Panama hat and large eyeglasses as he depicts a Jewish press agent who babbles a mile a minute, thinking he is decrying racism, totally unaware that he is peppering his own remarks with racist comments.

The scenes are not equally effective. A brief bit near the beginning with the three men depicting drag queens contributes little beyond the bright colors of the men's feather boas and page-boy wigs. But overall, the montage is impressively varied. Roger Guenveur Smith's fluid direction keeps things moving at an engaging clip.

There is, however, one additional element that Culture Clash might have borrowed from former Baltimorean Anna Deavere Smith, who has perfected the art of such interview-based shows. Using surtitles to identify the characters would keep the audience focused on what is being said, instead of making us play a guessing game. (Most of the brief scene titles in the program are too vague to do the trick.)

But this is a mere quibble about a work that provides a surprisingly wide-ranging view of a troubled city. "A Chicano in Miami makes no sense at all," Montoya says in a poetry-reading scene set in an after-hours club. "Radio Mambo" splendidly disproves this assertion. The show not only makes sense, it does so in a perceptive and highly entertaining fashion.

`Radio Mambo'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays, through Jan. 2

Tickets: $27-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

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