Playwright (and acclaimed Culture Clash writer-performer) Richard Montoya wrote “The River” for the small, intrepid company Campo Santo, where it is having its world premiere.
More specifically, Montoya and Campo Santo’s Sean San Jose collaborated on the project, with the memory of Campo Santo co-founder-actor Luis Saguar, who died in 2009, in mind.
The ghost of that gentle soul hovers over the poetic, boisterous and sometimes surreal comedy by way of its central figure, an only briefly seen Mexican man, Luis (Brian Rivera), who leaves his hometown sweetheart (Anna Maria Luera) to seek a river on the California-Mexico border.
On the journey he dies, and his body is discovered in a cave on a mountain by a pair of hyped-up hikers who have lost their way: a gringo (Christopher Ward White) who majored in hip-hop in college, and his gay lover, a Latino man (Lakin Valdez).
Other characters who eventually converge on the mountaintop in Montoya’s loving and inclusive exploration of our culturally diverse state: Crow, the self-proclaimed “world’s worst Indian,” in a feathered top hat (a goofy and hilarious portrayal by Michael Torres); a hipster-raconteur of sorts called Brother Ballard (a funny, motor-mouthed Donald E. Lacey), who claims he used to be a dramaturg; a forest ranger (a wonderfully sarcastic, take-charge Nora el Samahy); and a philosophical Japanese-American (Randall Nakano).
But maybe only the dead Luis was exactly who he claimed to be — the others, in an amusingly cathartic scene near the end, feel compelled to confess who they really are.
Guitarist Steve Boss, in Day of the Dead skeletal makeup, accompanies the action quite beautifully; the original score is by Charlie Gurke.
The two acts are packed with dense text, antic behavior (ritual copulation of a corpse, anyone?) and enough insider jokes (including references to the Bay Area nonprofit theater scene, Campo Santo the Mission district and more) to boggle the mind.
But amid the broad comic characterizations, the lyrical codas about love and loss and the commentary on everything from gentrification to racism to homophobia to environmental issues, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s going on, plotwise.
Plus San Jose directs at such a fever (and a high-decibel) pitch that the quiet, more meditative moments are too few and far between.
Montoya, San Jose and the cast pour boundless, and open-hearted, energy into this embarrassment of riches — but at this stage of development it’s too long and too unfocused.