They are trans-border alter egos, artistic body doubles, blood brothers in the fraternal order of crazy-loco Chicano-Mex theatrical subversion of el status quo.
Both came of maturity as artists in the San Francisco underground of the 1980s, both are politically engaged comic provocateurs of a certain age, both have admired each others’ work and rumbled along the same bilingual freeway interchanges for more than 20 years.
Yet in those two decades, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the Mexico City-born, Bay Area-based performance artist, and Richard Montoya, actor, director and 33% of the L.A. favorite-son trio Culture Clash, never had collaborated together.
That will change Wednesday night when they debut their two-man show “Los Doppelgangers” in the courtyard of the Fowler Museum at UCLA in a sold-out performance that’s serving as a low-rider test-drive for possible future engagements.
“Los Doppelgangers,” which combines new material with reworkings of some of the duo’s past monologues and spoken-word and movement-based works, has triptych ambitions. It was conceived as (among other things) an experimental mash-up of two different performance styles, a tragicomic eruption over the lamentable state of U.S.-Mexico relations and a lucha libre smackdown of everything that is timid, predictable and navel-gazing in contemporary American art.
“I wanted a more nimble, fast-strike, first-strike approach to the madness that was going on around us,” Montoya said during a recent interview at his downtown L.A. production offices, while Gómez-Peña peered over his shoulder via Skype. “The [drug] cartels, the border, Arizona, the anti-immigrant fervor, the hipsters in Echo Park, even the beat-down of the Giants fan at the hands of Los Angeles Dodgers fans.”
Above all, the men said, “Los Dopplegangers” was steered by a sense of urgency that the normal models of new-play development had become too slow for responding to realities that reload faster than a fresh Web page. What was needed, they concluded, was a sort of pop-up flash theater that could channel the energies and ordeals of, well, September 2011.
“We waited and waited for the right moment,” Montoya said, “and I think a sign of the aporc-a-lypse was Arnold Schwarzenegger having a Latino half son. That was certainly our star, that the Mex-Terminator has been born, and gave us full permission to go forward in our first time of collaboration.”
Collaboration, in this case, meant bridging the Dada-shamanistic methods favored by Gómez-Peña — who has perched backward on a commode dressed in full Aztec regalia in his “living diorama” “The Temple of Confession” and has directed opera (including a wildly revisionist version of Henry Purcell’s “The Indian Queen” for Long Beach Opera) — with the more script-based theatrical approach favored by Montoya and Culture Clash.
The animating impulse, according to Gómez-Peña , was “how do we find a common ground between performance — which is the art, the chronicle of the instant, the chronicle of the here and now — and theater, which is more based in craft? I want Ricardo’s craft, and Ricardo wants my sense of urgency.”
Stacey Abarbanel, the Fowler’s director of external affairs, said the idea of hosting Wednesday night’s performance arose in June when Montoya and Gómez-Peña approached museum officials with the germ of an idea for a new, highly topical performance piece.
“Richard and Guillermo both have this way of tackling very serious, sometimes very difficult material in a very compelling and also fun and funny way,” Abarbanel said. “I think their energies are going to be an interesting foil for each other.”
After the pair initially considered staging “Los Doppelgangers” in a 300-seat auditorium, they decided the best spot would be intimate confines of the museum courtyard, which will hold about 90 people Wednesday night.
Chicano Son, a local ensemble that plays Mexican regional son jarocho, will provide musical accompaniment throughout the show. Additional baroque subterfuges may ensue when a guest-choreographer is scheduled to leap into the Fowler courtyard’s fountain and baptize the city’s oldest-living cholo, Montoya said.
“And what about the band of naked mariachis that are going to be performing in the atrium?” Gómez-Peña interjected. “And the troupe of chihuahuas with tutus that are going to be dancing in the second part of the show?”
Turning serious, Gómez-Peña said that “Los Doppelgangers” intended to counter what he called the growing “isolationist and solipsistic” streak in U.S. society following the terrorist attacks of a decade ago — and the isolationist, solipsistic art that they begot.
“In many ways, artists are just reflecting, are just a mirror of society,” he said. “But we need to break that mirror.”