California Shakespeare Theater’s season opener, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, is completely bonkers. Madcap and relentlessly silly, Richard Montoya’s funhouse ride through American history is also sobering, pointing out the myriad ways ethnic minorities have been screwed over in this country.
A founding member of Culture Clash, the Latino comedy trio that started in San Francisco’s Mission District and is now based in Los Angeles, Montoya wrote American Night for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where it premiered in 2010. It was the first play in OSF’s American Revolutions initiative, a series of 37 plays on turning points in American history commissioned over a 10-year period. The current production is directed by Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, who happened to be both the director and main character of the second play in that series, Ghost Light, which was about grappling with the memory of his father, the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone. (Making things even more convoluted, one of the later shows in Cal Shakes’ current season, Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, is helmed by Christopher Liam Moore, the guy who played Jonathan Moscone in Ghost Light, directing the sort of play that Moscone specializes in.) It’s all connected in bizarrely complicated ways.
The connections keep coming fast and furious in American Night, too. Dozing off while cramming for his U.S. citizenship exam, Mexican immigrant Juan Jose is propelled into a breakneck satirical fantasia through American history. He’s there to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War and signing away an immense chunk of land stretching from Texas to California. He meets explorers Lewis and Clark (amusingly puffed-up Dan Hiatt and Sharon Lockwood) and their Shoshone guide Sacagawea (Dena Martinez as a gawkish teenager with a retainer). There’s a terrific scene in the camp of heroic African-American nurse Viola Pettus (a formidable Margo Hall) during the 1918 flu pandemic, leading to an amusing and curiously touching fireside encounter between a Klansman (Hiatt), a Mexican revolutionary (Brian Rivera) and Viola’s husband, a black cowboy (Tyee Tilghman), while Pettus tends to ailing babies in white hoods and sombreros.
Sean San Jose, who directed Montoya’s recent play The River in April for Campo Santo, makes an earnest and sympathetic protagonist as the bewildered Juan Jose. Juan Jose’s wife Lydia keeps showing up as a guide and beacon of hope, shining through the guise of whatever role Martinez happens to be playing in any particular scene, whether she’s a mustachioed soldier or Joan Baez or a spunky Chicano youth in a World War II Japanese internment camp.
The supporting cast is terrific, versatile and uproarious in a multiplicity of roles. Todd Nakagawa is an overenthusiastic Mormon missionary, a wacky Japanese game show host, and a pissed-off leather-jacketed teenage rebel in the internment camp, opposite Lockwood’s prim and idealistic teacher. Rivera has a pricelessly theatrical death scene as a Mexican dignitary and plays several flashy tough guys. He also delivers easily the most ridiculous Bob Dylan impersonation I’ve ever seen, and he’s a guy who lends himself to ridiculous impersonations. Richard Ruiz plays several outsize personalities from Teddy Roosevelt to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Neil Diamond. Hiatt has a stirring turn as labor organizer Harry Bridges; Tilghman is a stolid Jackie Robinson; and Margo Hall’s Benjamin Franklin is unforgettable.
Ringed by barbed wire Erik Flatmo’s set gives a taste of the border with a blacktop floor and a postcard-style background of rolling hills and a “USA BIENVENIDOS” sign, backed by the actual rolling hills of Cal Shakes’ amphitheater. Martin Schnellinger provides a staggering number and range of costumes for each actor’s many quick-change roles in different eras. Cliff Caruthers’s sound design is laced with a delightful mix of music from Woody Guthrie to Vanilla Ice, Wagner to Korean rapper Psy.
The comedy is broad, the pace hectic, and the story sprawling. But the show is peppered with sharp satirical touches, skewering stereotypes and celebrating the downtrodden. It’s really a love letter to America, celebrating the country in all its screwed-upness. It may be a mess, this country, Montoya seems to say, but if you want to be an American you have to take all of it, not just the presentable parts. And in a way that’s true of American Night, too: It’s fast and loose, a glorious mess of a comedy, but you can’t help loving it in all its unwieldiness.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose runs through June 23, 2013 at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information, visit calshakes.org.
All photos by Kevin Berne .