Twenty years ago in San Diego, L.A.’s beloved comedy trio Culture Clash premiered “Bordertown,” a collection of skits inspired by the experiences of immigrants crossing the Mexican-American border. The show was a comedy — but its depiction of the Arizona desert as a brutal, lawless, lethal no-man’s-land came as a shock to audiences.
In “Bordertown Now,” a reboot at Pasadena Playhouse directed by Diane Rodriguez, the three members of Culture Clash — Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza — along with guest artist Sabina Zúñiga Varela take us back to the same terrain. It hasn’t grown any more welcoming. Now, in fact, it has walls. Big, daunting ones, 20 feet by 20 feet, with bars. They slide across Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s set like prison gates designed for giants.
When the action begins, two men (Montoya and Salinas) are slogging through the desert. An alarm blares, lights blaze and a stranger in Army fatigues (Sigüenza) is aiming a gun at them and calling them “wetbacks.”
But as soon as the men start to explain themselves, the threat dissipates. Even though they look Hispanic, they explain, they’re American. They’re not drug mules, they’re “thespians.” A pill bottle found in one of their designer backpacks contains Viagra. “We’re as American as Chipotle,” one of them insists.
The man in the fatigues, meanwhile, is a civilian who has taken it upon himself to prowl the border for “illegals.”
Like other characters, he’s based on real people Culture Clash interviewed. It’s not a flattering portrait. It’s hard to find the heroism in a guy who goes around emptying water bottles in a desert. But what makes the scene really crackle is the way the writers mock their own privileges and pretensions at the same time they’re mocking his. “Nonprofit theater is no game, Mister!” one character shouts.
It’s impressive that so many of the jokes here work, because comedy — especially the topical political humor at which Culture Clash excels — doesn’t always age well. Case in point: The original “Bordertown” included bits about Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who had been in the news a lot in 1997. There are no Marshall Applewhite jokes in “Bordertown Now”; they’ve been swapped out for newer references, like ABC’s cancellation of “Roseanne.” (Although, yes, a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” gag might be a bit past its prime.)
The remodel isn’t just cosmetic: Montoya conducted new interviews over the last few years and shaped the material into new sketches. The technological landscape has been updated, with fancy screen projections and even a faux TED Talk. (Every once in a while, the imposing production values feel too heavy for the improvisational performances, just as bursts of moral indignation occasionally flatten the comedy.)
The most notable addition to the cast is the character of Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff in Arizona convicted of violating a federal court order to stop racial profiling — and then pardoned by President Trump. Montoya met with Arpaio (or so we’re led to believe, as we are shown a photograph of the two talking), and he plays him in what we assume is a dramatic re-enactment of their conversation. (Varela steps in as the interviewer and handles all the female roles.)
It’s not altogether clear what’s a faithful re-enactment or what’s satire. The longer Arpaio is on stage, swaggering and drawling and saying awful things, the more distracting this uncertainty becomes.
A running joke throughout the play is that the subjects assume they’re being filmed for a documentary; the interviewers have to keep explaining that they’re researching a play. (“Oh, that’s neat. So, nobody’s ever going to see it,” Arpaio replies.)
Culture Clash could have made this material into a documentary. Their choice to write a play suggests that they wanted to explore the various borderlands the theater opens up — between fact and fiction, between satire and agitprop, between 1998 and 2018. The show doesn’t always keep its footing. But even its missteps reinforce the message that the person who tells a story gets to decide who’s the villain and who’s the hero. The question, in our fractured culture, is whether anybody who doesn’t already agree will be listening.
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Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends June 24
Tickets: $25 and up
Information: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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