By Victor Payan
San Diego-born playwright Richard Montoya has been on a prolific hot streak for the past several years. His expert mix of weight and whimsy have made him a favorite of local audiences, and his latest play, Federal Jazz Project, is yet another winner. A collaboration with local jazz master Gilbert Castellanos, Federal Jazz Project delivers a verbal and musical tour de force that digs into the dark underbelly of World War II-era San Diego and provides a fascinating history tour of America’s Finest City.
Fans of local lore and lovers of great jazz should rush out to see Federal Jazz Project before it concludes its World Premiere run at the San Diego Repertory Theatre this Sunday at 2pm.
Federal Jazz Project shines on many levels and features some brilliant writing by Montoya. Stellar live music by a Castellanos-led jazz quintet and strong performances by a capable cast round out the story of Kidd (Joe Hernandez-Kolski), an idealistic impresario, whose hopes of launching the careers of two singing and dancing sisters named San Diego and Tijuana, played Lorraine Castellanos and Claudia Gomez, are thwarted by the guardians of San Diego’s military-industrial complex.
The projection design is well-done, and the set is well-utilized. The transition between Tijuana’s tap dancing success and her arrest is a bit rough, but is consistent with the historical realities of the era.
Federal Jazz Project plays to Montoya’s strengths, incorporating audience participation, skewering of the fourth wall and peppering in surreal interludes, such as when a buoyant Lawrence Welk, played by Mark Pinter, introduces guest servicemen musicians to play for the audience. Somewhere in your enjoyment of the musical talent of the soldiers, you realize that they are modern corollaries to the World War II veteran musicians portrayed in the play, and that war is as much a part of the San Diego experience as surf, sand and sunshine.
The tone of the play starts out light enough to woo the audience and slowly darkens, leading up to a powerful ending that features a brilliantly-written anti-war tirade delivered with righteous fury by Kidd’s Marine grandson (also played by Hernandez-Kolski).
Montoya teases the audience with gags about San Diego’s various communities throughout the play, and he certainly knows how to keep the laughs coming. His writing is at its strongest, however, when he is riffing to the audience about subjects such as the trenchcoated Rafas, played by members of the Cabrones Motorcycle Club, again blurring the line between actor and actuality.
The play’s title hearkens back to New Deal programs, specifically the Federal Theatre Project, and it is apt that the project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Whether in collaboration with his partners in the comedy troupe Culture Clash or as a solo playwright, Montoya has delivered a string of dazzling, daunting and mature works that dig deep into America and deftly dismantle its myth-making apparatus.
It’s a rare gift to make audience members laugh while you are peeling the layers off of their city’s past. Montoya succeeds because he is both the ringleader and ringmaster of a carefully orchestrated circus of punchlines and pathos. And the rest is history.
Federal Jazz Project’s final three performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm; and Sunday, May 5 at 2pm at the San Diego Repertory Theater, 79 Horton Plaza, in downtown San Diego. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 619-544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.
Victor Payan is an award-winning writer and cultural critic. His website is www.victorpayan.com.