A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

American Night 1

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.

American Night 2

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).



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.

Campo Santo’s wild ride on a raging River

The River
Lakin Valdez (left) is Javier and Christopher Ward White is Lance in the world premiere of Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production. Below: Donald E. Lacy Jr. (left) is Brother Ballard, Nora el Samahy (center) is Sally Ranger and Michael Torres is Crow. Photos by Pak Han

Some rivers run with water. This one is a torrent of words – some really extraordinary words.

Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ world premiere of The River, a dazzling fusion of poetry, comedy, satire, loss and beauty, heralds the welcome return of Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, who has become a powerful theatrical force in his own right. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José was a triumph at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has gone on to be produced around the country. Bay Area audiences will get a second helping of Montoya when American Night opens the season for California Shakespeare Theater in June. Until then, we have a magnificent River, which, like American Night, is part of Montoya’s The Border Series, plays that investigate California, its people, identity and its borders.

What’s so exciting about Montoya’s voice is its passion and vibrancy, the ease with which it hurtles from tender poetry to rough comedy to ultra-smart insight. There’s electricity in his writing and a sense of fearlessness. There’s nowhere he won’t go, and that makes his work incredibly alive.

If some of the River seems a little messy, that’s part of the charm. It’s not a neat and tidy package, but Montoya, working alongside director (and Campo Santo founder) Sean San José makes it entertaining and important and full of moments, both in performance and in language, that take your breath away.

Plot is secondary to character here, but the setting is the southern California desert, where a Native American called Crow (Michael Torres in a grand, funny, fiery performance) practices various cons, or as he calls them, “desert hustles.” In his rambling monologue that opens the play, he references everything from Bob Dylan to Alice in Wonderland and admits that he’s the world’s worst Indian. He mentions a cave he can’t find and a guy named Luis, but in his particular torrent of words, those details get caught up in the general flow.

The River

Then we meet the play’s central characters (central in that they’re the ones who will evolve most). In pairings of note, we’ve had Crosby and Hope, Abbott and Costello, Bill and Ted and Harold and Kumar. Now we can add to that list Lance and Javier. Brightly dressed in skinny jeans and the latest from American Apparel (or the like), this gay couple has driven down from San Francisco to have a desert experience. They are referred to several times as “burners,” and that makes sense. These aspiring artists want to take drugs in the desert, have sex and enter mystical realms.

Lance (Christopher Ward White) just completed his PhD in hip-hop (“I got a PhD in something I can never be,” he laments at one point) at UC Berkeley and he’s sort of an Oscar Wilde for the digital age. He says of his boyfriend, “Javier thinks he loves me, but really we just hate the same people.”

Javier (Lakin Valdez) is a little more grounded but just as whip smart. The two of them banter like an ADHD George and Martha at the White Party, but they’re not just tossing around zingers. These are two of the most interesting gay characters to hit the stage in a long time. They’re sexual and smart, funny and silly. They dive into stereotype and they smack it around. There’s ferocity under their humor but there’s also complexity and wells of feeling, longing and outright need.

During the early stages of their desert idyll, the boys stumble across a shrouded body in a cave, and that body turns out to be Luis (Brian Rivera), a Mexican deportee who has died before bringing his beloved wife (Anna Maria Luera) across the border.

But just who Luis is and what he experienced fills out what remains of the plot as we meet other intriguing characters including Sally Ranger (a hilarious Nora el Samahy), a slick trickster from the city named Brother Ballard (Donald E. Lacey Jr. in one of his most assured and energetic performances) and Sydell (Randall Nakano), a somewhat enigmatic man who presides over the chaos triggered by the body and the cave.

Referring to the proceedings as “fake magic realism” at one point, playwright Montoya takes flights of linguistic fancy that work because the play is so grounded in humor, filled with genuine emotion and performed with such infectious enthusiasm by San José’s cast. There’s also near-constant music provided by Steve Boss the guitar virtuoso tucked into the corner and wearing skeleton make-up.

There are lots of inside jokes about Bay Area theaters, theater artists, Mission hipsters and the spiritual cost of gentrification. But you don’t have to know all the names or the theater companies to get that they are being lovingly poked and that the whole notion of creating art, theater specifically, is the antithesis and, perhaps, even antidote to grief.

The River was inspired by and is dedicated to Luis Saguar, a founding member of Campo Santo, whose death in 2009 had a profound effect on the artists who knew and loved him. This play is a response to that – an incredible response – but like the inside theater jokes, you don’t have to know anything about Saguar to know that The River is grappling with big issues in original, fascinating and deeply heartfelt ways.

Performed in the flexible and intimate black box space at the ACT Costume Shop, The River is going to be a hard ticket to come by, but this is one of those productions you’ll want to say you were there for when people are talking about it years from now.

Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production, continues through May 4 at ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 415-626-2787, Ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org.