Culture Clash's latest show gallops, giggles, jangles, hoots, and whistles its boisterous way onto the Brava Theater Center stage. The backdrop is a Keith Haring-like Caribbean map that features a hurricane and a pair of oversize flamingos. Performed and written by the home-grown Chicano comedy trio (which has been based since 1990 in Los Angeles) and directed by Roger Guenveur Smith, Radio Mambo combines the Clash's brand of lunatic satire with the finely tuned tension that has been Smith's hallmark in shows like Inside the Creole Mafia and A Huey P. Newton Story. The result is a vivid and lively portrait of Miami, "a Third World community in a First World country"; the show is noisy, funny, unsparing, and relentless and a splendid homecoming for the group.
Radio Mambo wastes no time. Against the ominous voice-over used as a warning to tourists by local car-rental agencies -- "Know where you are going before departing on your journey" -- the show begins its flash tour. Latino, Haitian, and rap music alternate with occasional silence to create this portrait of a city whose immigrant population continues to grow faster than its ability to cope.
As if taking a cue from their voluminous subject, Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza -- career through sketch after sketch, changing focus and character with the ease and virtuosity of a trio of shape-shifters. It's like a circus without a ringmaster, starring the endless parade of clowns who tumble from an incongruously tiny car.
Beginning with the Cubans who wander onstage during the introductory remarks, for two intermissionless hours we meet what seems like the entire population: an African-American ghetto dweller whose shower cap and sunglasses mark him as a tourist predator; showgirls in feather boas lip-syncing to "Only in Miami"; a Cuban furniture dealer who explains that historically, Cubans are traders, "the Jews of the Caribbean." (The same dealer boasts of the exploitative commercials he makes -- most notably, one in which boat people head their leaky craft for his store -- that anger various groups but provide great name recognition.) There's a Jewish art dealer who nonchalantly sums up the assimilated newcomer's experience by shrugging off the way Jews are now lumped together with other whites as "Anglos." There are the various black communities: Haitians, Bahamians, and African-Americans. Plus old people, gays, and the inevitable mixed marriage, consisting of a Cuban man and a white woman.
The show moves rapidly but smoothly through a series of structural devices, starting with a switching radio dial and arriving at a television or documentary filmmaker's roving camera. This provides color and pacing as well as an opportunity -- too little used -- to let Radio Mambo acquire the sort of depth so brilliantly achieved by Culture Clash's nearest artistic relation, Anna Deveare Smith. But where Deveare Smith focuses on historic events experienced by various urban communities, Culture Clash's members are looking at the community itself.
If the show has a sticking point, it's the swirl of too many characters delivering what comes down to a single (and by now familiar) message: The melting pot isn't really a melting pot at all. As summed up by the elderly Haitian enjoying a rum and coke in his front yard, "I never suffer from so-called segregation because I stay in my territory."
The same could be said for Culture Clash. While they never surrender their brash edginess, this manic tour of the sun-and-fun capital of the universe doesn't pause anywhere long enough to provide more than the most fleeting of glimpses. But as in any whirlwind tour, when you finally halt long enough to catch your breath, you find yourself bombarded by a rich assortment of images and memories that are more than enough to regale your friends with afterward, and more than enough to make you glad you came.