Richard Montoya, of the iconic Los Angeles-based performance group Culture Clash, is brilliant — a deeply socially committed playwright who’s eloquent, poetic and funny.
As an actor, he can portray just about any type of character, comic or dramatic.
In “Nogales,” his latest play, first seen at Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Ariz., and now at the Magic Theatre as part of a rolling world premiere, he’s joined by two fine collaborators, actor Sean San José of co-producing organization Campo Santo (who appears in the play and also directed it) and video designer-photographer Joan Osato.
The three went to the bleak Arizona border town of Nogales, in the Sonoran desert, to research the brutal 2012 shooting, on the Mexican side, of innocent 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriquez by a border patrolman (who’s scheduled for a criminal trial next year) and to investigate the general atmosphere. Montoya used some of the interview material to create the script.
But the resulting metatheatrical and multidisciplinary play, performed by a strong seven-member ensemble, is distractingly word-, sound- and image-heavy.
It’s full of videos and photos on three upstage screens, has a bit of dancing, as well as voiceovers, long monologues, dramatic music, multiple minor characters and a stage overloaded with set pieces, including an impressive, wide, miniature diorama of the town of Nogales by Tanya Orellana, and seen in close-up on video.
There’s even a little funeral procession complete with naked dead body.
“Nogales” isn’t really about the boy José Antonio; he’s no more than a symbol of a corrupt and seemingly lawless system.
Rather, it’s about racial profiling among the trigger-happy border patrol, about immigration, about the lives of the people in this no-man’s land (the play’s subtitle is “Storytellers in Cartel Country”), probably enough material for several plays.
In its most theatrically satisfying aspect, it’s about the complex and alarming Joe Arpaio, the notorious right-wing sheriff of Maricopa County.
The real man is seen occasionally on the video screen and expertly portrayed onstage by Montoya. Scenes of actor San José (in essence playing himself, a nonprofit theater artist) interviewing Arpaio in his office are entertaining and at times chilling.
Other characters — a cliché “border girl” and more — feel extraneous and dilute the impact of the social issues under examination. If only Montoya’s embarrassment of riches were narrowed down to the sharp focus that those issues deserve.
Presented by Magic Theatre with Campo Santo and Borerlands Theater
Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, closes Oct. 30
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org