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STAGE REVIEW : Cannonizing Father Serra : Satire: The founder of California’s missions takes his lumps from a trio of Latino jesters called Culture Clash.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s an audacious way to start a comedy.

In the opening scene of “The Mission,” at Los Angeles Theatre Center, a trio of brash Latino jesters known as Culture Clash lampoons Father Junipero Serra for his treatment of the Indians in the 18th Century. Some might see this as dangerously academic; Culture Clash apparently understands that the American cultural clash goes way back.

The group soon retreats into more conventional stuff. The opening sketch is explained as a peyote-inspired dream by one of the members of Culture Clash. The rest of the show is more or less a theme and variations on a familiar subject: how can these three guys find employment without selling out?

“The Mission” finally refers less to Father Serra’s endeavors than to the district of San Francisco where the members of Culture Clash share an apartment. We follow them on their job-hunting rounds--to humiliating auditions and club dates and even to a fast-food joint called Serra Taqueria. Finally they kidnap singer Julio Iglesias in a desperate attempt to get some nationwide exposure for their act.

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The plot, such as it is, serves two purposes. On the serious side, it’s an expression of the frustration felt by Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ricardo Salinas as they confront Latino stereotypes that hold them back in their chosen profession. On the jokier side, it’s a showcase for these three within their chosen profession.

They take maximum advantage of their showcase, and it soon becomes clear that they’re exceptionally gifted comics. Their script is dotted with caustic wit. And the barbs are spread equitably enough to jab themselves and such benefactors as El Teatro Campesino (“El Teatro Cappuccino”) along with more predictable targets, such as the Anglos who want to order quesadillas-- without cheese.

As an ensemble, they speak and move with pinpoint timing. And they’re individually very funny: Montoya with a sharply angled face and distinctively hip whine, Siguenza with expansive impersonations, Salinas with a deceptively reticent manner and anonymous looks that allow him to overturn expectations more than the others--when, for example, he breaks into an Aztec rap number.

At LATC, the theater’s Jose Luis Valenzuela is credited as director and the show is mounted on a vivid set designed by Gronk and lit by Jose Lopez. Its professionalism and laugh-making ability are never in doubt.

It’s the serious side of the show that seems a little stale. In this same building, we’ve seen an eloquent statement about the plight of Latino actors--in Luis Valdez’s “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges"--as well as another comedy troupe that tackled Latino stereotypes, Latins Anonymous (now playing at San Diego Repertory Theatre).

While the Latins Anonymous show, in this very room a few months ago, wasn’t as cohesive, as focused or as verbally nimble as “The Mission,” it nevertheless had the advantage of showcasing gifted Latinas as well as Latinos. There are moments during “The Mission,” such as when Culture Clash does a second cholo parody, when women’s voices could add some welcome variety.

And while it’s admirable that the Culture Clashers have strung their routines together within a full-length narrative, it’s hardly an airtight structure. For example, before intermission we hear Salinas protesting his friends’ plan to try to become a part of Iglesias’ “Camino Real Tour ’89.” But during intermission his protest is simply forgotten, never to be dealt with. Without revealing the ending, let’s just say that it’s hazier than you would expect from such precise comics.

That they want to be a part of a 1989 tour also indicates the slightly dated quality of some of their material. The show is supposedly set in 1988--when the controversy over Father Serra’s potential canonization was raging. Although Culture Clash tossed in a one-line reference to the current brouhaha over Olvera Street, such a sharp-tongued show needs more of an up-to-the-last-minute perspective if its satire is to cut as sharply as it might, given the talents of these satirists.

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Their talent is so palpable that their show seems unnecessarily restricted in its subject matter. If they’re going to be so autobiographical, for example, they should venture beyond job-seeking--with its self-promotional overtones. In “The Mission,” occasional one-liners about childhood are the only other personal references.

In a terrible incident last year, Salinas was shot and critically wounded while trying to assist a man who was being beaten near his apartment. In interviews, Salinas predicted that this incident would be used in their show. But although the group mocks street gangs, the shooting is not in “The Mission.”

Maybe in their next show? “The Mission” does leave one wanting to see it, whenever it’s ready.

At 514 S. Spring St., Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., indefinitely. $15-$18; (213) 627-5599.

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