Theater review by Roberta Kent: It is performance art that is carefully scripted, precisely directed and passionately acted — and it leaves the audience absolutely rolling in the aisle when it isn't bringing an involuntary catch in the throat.
"American Night: The Ballad of Juan José," which had its world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre on Saturday night, is a raucous celebration of American history — the good, the bad and the ugly. It is OSF's first commissioned play in its "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle," and a very auspicious beginning it is.
This is not your traditional "history play." It is rollicking, irreverent political commentary at its best. It is performance art that is carefully scripted, precisely directed and passionately acted — and it leaves the audience absolutely rolling in the aisle when it isn't bringing an involuntary catch in the throat.
Our hero, Juan José (René Millán), is a Mexican immigrant who fled police corruption and now has attained a green card. But he wants more than to be a resident alien. He wants full American citizenship that will allow him to bring his wife and infant son to the U.S. Feverishly studying the government history fact handout, "The Citizen's Almanac," a pocket copy of the Constitution and flash cards, Juan José drifts into a fitful sleep with dreams that take him through those moments of American history that have somehow resonated with him.
He encounters Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea (whom Juan José calls "Sacachihuahua"). He is there at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and ceded the territory that became most of the American West — and made Mexicans foreigners in their own land. He visits the tent camp of black cowboy Ben Pettus and his wife Viola in west Texas during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 when Viola nursed black, white and Mexican alike, not even turning away members of the local Ku Klux Klan.
He visits the Manzanar internment camp, confused why Japanese-Americans are imprisoned here when the Fourth Amendment clearly says they cannot be. He rides the rails with Woody Guthrie, meets the unemployed in White City and a Tea Party lady as well as Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Teddy Roosevelt, labor organizer Harry Bridges, Fidel Castro, two proselytizing Mormons, assorted ICE enforcement types, Nike "maquilladora" assembly-line workers and a stoned Bob Dylan at Woodstock. The cultural references come non-stop — everything from Woodstock to "zoot suit" to Vegas lounge acts to television sitcoms to martial arts flicks.
As written by the members of the Los Angeles Latino theater group Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas) and directed by multiple award winning Jo Bonney, "American Night" plays on every stereotype, every politically incorrect slur, every broad comedy shtick you can imagine. The point here is that if you can laugh at the absurdity of a situation, you conquer it.
This is truly an ensemble cast. Stephanie Beatriz, Rodney Gardiner, David Kelly, Richard Montoya, Kate Mulligan, Kimberly Scott, Herbert Siguenza and Daisuke Tsuji play everyone and everything, shape-shifting into white, black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian while Millán plays their straight man.
Scenic designer Neil Patel uses a blank "wall" of corrugated metal, cinder block and security fencing that morphs into a screen for the imaginative projections by Shawn Sagady. So we get everything from graffiti ("Fronteras: Cicatrizes en la Tierra," which by the end of the play has been translated to "Borders: Scars on the Earth"), a panorama of the badlands of the Mexican-American border, a montage of Depression-era boxcars, the California desert of the Manzanar internment camp, the Gulf of Mexico, industrial gears and cogs and a Japanese-themed game show. All effectively lit by lighting designer David Weiner. Costume designer Emilio Sosa matches the madness, as does composer and sound designer Darron L. West.
"American Night" only runs 90 minutes, but it leaves you breathless. Try — by all means, try — to get tickets to this one.
How fitting that this play opened on the July 4 weekend exactly 75 years to the day Angus Bowmer presented the first festival productions of "Twelfth Night" (note: this play title has been corrected) and "The Merchant of Venice." A lot has happened to America since then. The great melting pot of the 20th century has welcomed — and reviled — more immigrants than the founding fathers could ever have imagined, each group striving and clawing to achieve the American dream. America is still very much a work in progress. "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" is the first of 37 plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will commission to tell this American story.
And remember as we pass Independence Day again — the most popular condiment in the U.S.A. is now salsa.
Robert Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at email@example.com.