Dena Martinez (far left) as Sacajawea, Sharon Lockwood (left) as William Clark, Dan Hiatt (center) as Meriwether Lewis and Sean San José as Juan José in California Shakespeare Theater’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Below: (from left) Tyee Tilghman as Ben Pettus, Margo Hall as Viola Pettus, San José and Martinez. Photos by Kevin Berne.
Spring and early summer 2013 may well be remembered as the Great Montoya Surge.
In April, Richard Montoya – one third of the legendary San Francisco-born comedy trio Culture Clash – premiered a play with Campo Santo called The River (read the review here), and it was funny and brash and heartfelt and messy and pretty wonderful. It had to do with, among other things, death and immigration, and it made you crave more Montoya work.
We didn’t have to wait long. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José opened the California Shakespeare Theater season Saturday on a night so warm and beautiful under the stars in Orinda you wonder why every play can’t be done outdoors (how quickly we forget those freezing cold, windy, foggy nights when nary a star is visible). The play, developed with Culture Clash and Jo Bonney (who has directed earlier productions of the play, including its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the original commissioner of the work), is wild, messy, funny, irreverent and heartfelt. It’s about immigration (not so much about death) and about the strength of a nation built on and still thriving from the hard work of its diverse citizenry, most of whom are or descend directly from immigrants.
Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone attempts to contain Montoya’s manic energy in a 105-minute production that crams in so many references, both historical and pop-cultural, that it’s impossible to appreciate them all. There’s not a sour note in Moscone’s excellent cast, which is full of actors that seem to be loving the comic whirlwind, which has, among other personages, Sacajawea in braces and headgear, Lewis and Clark as egotistical buffoons, Celia Cruz (for no apparent reason), Neil Diamond, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mormon missionaries and Abraham Lincoln (using his Academy Award as a hand weight, naturally).
What keeps it all centered is the performance of Sean San José as Juan José, a recent Mexican immigrant who, after fighting corrupting influences on the Mexican police force, leaves his wife and infant son to try for a better, less morally compromising life across the border. He has his green card but needs to spend the night studying up before his citizenship test in the morning. Before he can delve too deeply into questions like, “Name the original 13 colonies,” he falls asleep. And the ensuing dream/warped history pageant is the bulk of the play.
San José is Dorothy in this wild American Oz, with episodes that range from downright silly (he uses dead rabbits as nunchucks) to the incredibly sweet. During a stay in West Texas, he encounters the Ku Klux Klan (Dan Hiatt as a local judge), an African-American couple saving infants’ lives during the flu epidemic of 1918 (Margot Hall and Tyee Tilghman as Viola and Benjamin Pettus) as well as some of his ancestors. His encounter with Jackie Robinson (Tilghman again) is also a rare quiet moment that is quite moving, as is a stop at a radio station in the Manzanar WWII internment camp, where Sharon Lockwood is a ferocious teacher of the young Japanese detainees and Todd Nakagawa is an ultra-cool teen feeling deep conflict about his country, his heritage and the war.
Two MVPs in this game cast are Brian Rivera in a number of roles, including Juan José the First, and Richard Ruiz in drag and out (and especially as a zaftig Neil Diamond belting out a re-written “America”), are hilarious and ferocious in equal measure – like they’re directly channeling that Culture Clash electricity.
Set designer Erik Flatmo and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau keep things simple to keep up with the fast pace and the hairpin turns, but special shout out to costumer Marin Schnellinger for adding a whole lot of zest and humor with his colorful creations.
Before Juan can depart his dream world, he has to suffer through a contentious town hall meeting in which every viewpoint is spewed and he’s reminded that he’s about to “pledge allegiance to a country that doesn’t want him.” We get a sweet “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the ukulele from Dena Martinez and an ending that is more poignant than you might expect from such a zany history lesson. The whole vibe of the show feels a lot like mature Culture Clash (no surprise there) but also like a San Francisco Mime Troupe show when that company was at its best. There are strange elements here, like a narrator who only appears to introduce the flu epidemic scene, and a Japanese game show sequence toward the end of the show (featuring a funny Nakagawa and Lockwood) is probably one more layer of zany the show doesn’t need.
But this American Night – especially on a gorgeous Northern California night – is historically hilarious and the most entertaining way imaginable to learn the three branches of American government (and the original 13 colonies).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues in a California Shakespeare Theater production through June 23 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.