Water and Power, the title of Richard Montoya’s “stage noir” drama, sums up Southern California history in three words. Forget gold, railroads, or waves upon waves of health seekers. Water has always ruled our region. Around here you don’t have to follow the money, just the flow back to its source.
“There is no power without water,” Asuncion Garcia tells his twin boys in the play, “and no water without power.” Asuncion digs ditches for the DWP, the Department of Water and Power, or as one of the boys says, “the Department of White People.” He raises Gilbert and Gabriel to become East L.A. legends and players in a statewide arena. He nicknames Gilbert “Water” and Gabriel “Power.”
Problem is, the younger Gabe (by about eight minutes) doesn’t like being named “for a utility.” He needs toughening up. Gilbert does such a bang-up job that, when we first see Gabe, he’s a decorated police lieutenant holed up at the Motel Paradise on a dark and stormy night. Gabe snorts coke, slugs Cuervo Gold, and paces the floor. “Power” abused his power. When off duty, Gabe shot a released prisoner. Now half of L.A., it would seem, is headed to his Sunset Boulevard hideout to take him down.
Older brother Gilbert tries to save the day. “Water” became a lawyer, then an influential state senator. He’s close to fulfilling a dream: the César Chávez River Walkway, a greenbelt that will put one million trees in East Los Angeles. “Water” will exercise his power and void the contract on his brother.
The script creates a myth about legendary brothers. But then Montoya demystifies it. Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe, “walked the mean streets” but was “not himself mean.” Like Philip, Gilbert and Gabe fly solo. But the more we learn about Water and Power, the less Marlovian they become. The public servants put private interests first: Gabe’s a felon, and Gilbert must chose between a dream and an unthinkable reality.
How many movie trailers in the past 30 years swirl up chaos and announce, “BUT THEN ONE MAN” will save the day? Why just one? Why not two? Or two women? Or a baker’s dozen? And what does that “one man” do? Movie trailers like this have constituted an ongoing brainwash for above-the-law vigilantism: the Dirty Harry syndrome.
In the end, Montoya has written a cautionary tale about that syndrome. The brothers have abused their power. The long — extremely long — denouement decries their actions. “Chicano power brokers,” he says, need to learn from gringos how to “spread it around.” The need’s well taken. The shining gringo example, however, after eight years of unilateral ravaging, raises an eyebrow.
Montoya’s a mainstay of Culture Clash, one of San Diego’s most beloved groups (and one of our city’s most incisive critics). The script combines film noir intensity with Clash satire. Sometimes the latter shoots the former in the foot. The “dark and stormy night” effects, for example, parody a life-and-death situation. And the jokes pull us away as well (but they’re funny: politico-Gilbert says he stopped being a Chicano in 1995, “and after recovery started again”). Individual lines conjure up the gray ambiguities of film noir, as when a character says, “Nothing is concrete in L.A., except the river.”
Director Sam Woodhouse and the San Diego Rep have staged Water and Power in the round — including a four-sided rain effect. Woodhouse has smoothed out most of the play’s at times uneven rhythms. He and his cast obviously enjoy the hard-boiled genre of shadowy subtexts. As the brothers, Richard Trujillo (Gilbert) and Herbert Siguenza (Gabe) don’t resemble twins. But the pair creates such a strong emotional connection that the physical difference disappears.
John R. Padilla provides valuable support as the boy’s caring father (though the script tends to blame him, indirectly, for how they turned out). Marc Alexander plays both boys, in flashbacks, and a mystical, antler-crowned Deer Dancer.
Outstanding performances bookend the production. Mike Genovese does a cameo as the Fixer, a precise, white-suited developer-thug one twitch away from tearing Gilbert, and the posh restaurant they’re dining in, to tatters.
Water and Power’s obsessed with opposites — high and low, north and south, ideals and realities — and the space between them. The character named Norte/Sur (“north/south”) embodies that middle position. Bald, with “L.A.” tattooed on his head, Norte/Sur’s a paraplegic (shot by Gabe) and poet-shaman. In the wrong hands, Norte/Sur could become a yummy Obi Wan. Instead, Bobby Plasencia makes him such a self-effacing seer of inclusionary visions, he should become either the next governor of California or, more to the point, our state water commissioner.
Water and Power, by Richard Montoya
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Bobby Plasencia, Richard Trujillo, Herbert Siguenza, Marc Alexander Gonzalez, Mike Genovese, Arturo Medina, John R. Padilla; scenic design, Kriste Flores and Adam Lindsay; costume design, Kate Stallons; lighting, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; composer, Paul James Prendergast; sound design, Tom Jones; fight direction, James Newcomb
Playing through November 16; Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.