Campo Santo’s wild ride on a raging River

The River
Lakin Valdez (left) is Javier and Christopher Ward White is Lance in the world premiere of Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production. Below: Donald E. Lacy Jr. (left) is Brother Ballard, Nora el Samahy (center) is Sally Ranger and Michael Torres is Crow. Photos by Pak Han

Some rivers run with water. This one is a torrent of words – some really extraordinary words.

Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ world premiere of The River, a dazzling fusion of poetry, comedy, satire, loss and beauty, heralds the welcome return of Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, who has become a powerful theatrical force in his own right. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José was a triumph at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has gone on to be produced around the country. Bay Area audiences will get a second helping of Montoya when American Night opens the season for California Shakespeare Theater in June. Until then, we have a magnificent River, which, like American Night, is part of Montoya’s The Border Series, plays that investigate California, its people, identity and its borders.

What’s so exciting about Montoya’s voice is its passion and vibrancy, the ease with which it hurtles from tender poetry to rough comedy to ultra-smart insight. There’s electricity in his writing and a sense of fearlessness. There’s nowhere he won’t go, and that makes his work incredibly alive.

If some of the River seems a little messy, that’s part of the charm. It’s not a neat and tidy package, but Montoya, working alongside director (and Campo Santo founder) Sean San José makes it entertaining and important and full of moments, both in performance and in language, that take your breath away.

Plot is secondary to character here, but the setting is the southern California desert, where a Native American called Crow (Michael Torres in a grand, funny, fiery performance) practices various cons, or as he calls them, “desert hustles.” In his rambling monologue that opens the play, he references everything from Bob Dylan to Alice in Wonderland and admits that he’s the world’s worst Indian. He mentions a cave he can’t find and a guy named Luis, but in his particular torrent of words, those details get caught up in the general flow.

The River

Then we meet the play’s central characters (central in that they’re the ones who will evolve most). In pairings of note, we’ve had Crosby and Hope, Abbott and Costello, Bill and Ted and Harold and Kumar. Now we can add to that list Lance and Javier. Brightly dressed in skinny jeans and the latest from American Apparel (or the like), this gay couple has driven down from San Francisco to have a desert experience. They are referred to several times as “burners,” and that makes sense. These aspiring artists want to take drugs in the desert, have sex and enter mystical realms.

Lance (Christopher Ward White) just completed his PhD in hip-hop (“I got a PhD in something I can never be,” he laments at one point) at UC Berkeley and he’s sort of an Oscar Wilde for the digital age. He says of his boyfriend, “Javier thinks he loves me, but really we just hate the same people.”

Javier (Lakin Valdez) is a little more grounded but just as whip smart. The two of them banter like an ADHD George and Martha at the White Party, but they’re not just tossing around zingers. These are two of the most interesting gay characters to hit the stage in a long time. They’re sexual and smart, funny and silly. They dive into stereotype and they smack it around. There’s ferocity under their humor but there’s also complexity and wells of feeling, longing and outright need.

During the early stages of their desert idyll, the boys stumble across a shrouded body in a cave, and that body turns out to be Luis (Brian Rivera), a Mexican deportee who has died before bringing his beloved wife (Anna Maria Luera) across the border.

But just who Luis is and what he experienced fills out what remains of the plot as we meet other intriguing characters including Sally Ranger (a hilarious Nora el Samahy), a slick trickster from the city named Brother Ballard (Donald E. Lacey Jr. in one of his most assured and energetic performances) and Sydell (Randall Nakano), a somewhat enigmatic man who presides over the chaos triggered by the body and the cave.

Referring to the proceedings as “fake magic realism” at one point, playwright Montoya takes flights of linguistic fancy that work because the play is so grounded in humor, filled with genuine emotion and performed with such infectious enthusiasm by San José’s cast. There’s also near-constant music provided by Steve Boss the guitar virtuoso tucked into the corner and wearing skeleton make-up.

There are lots of inside jokes about Bay Area theaters, theater artists, Mission hipsters and the spiritual cost of gentrification. But you don’t have to know all the names or the theater companies to get that they are being lovingly poked and that the whole notion of creating art, theater specifically, is the antithesis and, perhaps, even antidote to grief.

The River was inspired by and is dedicated to Luis Saguar, a founding member of Campo Santo, whose death in 2009 had a profound effect on the artists who knew and loved him. This play is a response to that – an incredible response – but like the inside theater jokes, you don’t have to know anything about Saguar to know that The River is grappling with big issues in original, fascinating and deeply heartfelt ways.

Performed in the flexible and intimate black box space at the ACT Costume Shop, The River is going to be a hard ticket to come by, but this is one of those productions you’ll want to say you were there for when people are talking about it years from now.

Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production, continues through May 4 at ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 415-626-2787, Ext. 109 or visit

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  1. Pingback: A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season | Chad Jones' Theater Dogs

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