Season: 2012

"American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" review in NY Times

Posted on Oct 6th, 2012 in New Work
American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose

2010 OSF world premiere by Culture Clash receives kudos in Yale Rep production

By ANITA GATES
A giant bear makes his entrance, carrying three bright yellow Nike shoeboxes, and says something about “the 47 percent.” Teddy Roosevelt refers to texting. An infant appears in a full Ku Klux Klan outfit, including the pointy hat. Jesus Christ pops in, billed with his middle initial, “H.” A Fat Elvis impersonator in a star-spangled jumpsuit takes charge near the end.

Richard Montoya’s “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” Yale Repertory Theater’s newest production, is a lovable hodgepodge of references, historical and pop-cultural, with a deadly serious message at its heart. But as Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

The show — developed by Culture Clash, the performance collective, and Jo Bonney and originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — isn’t exactly a play or exactly a musical. It often has the feel of an absurdist history pageant, although, to be fair, the recent Broadway musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” did some of the same things, and nobody ever questioned its rock-musical credentials.

“American Night” begins somberly, and romantically, enough. Musicians stroll onto the stage of the University Theater, along with Juan José (René Millán), who sings a mournful ballad in Spanish. English translations are projected upstage.

As the first scene begins, Juan repeats one of the Spanish lyrics in English: “My mother had too many tears in her eyes and too many sons in the ground.” Juan, whose hometown is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, has left his family behind, along with the drug war, which he describes as “very, very real” as well as his job as a Mexican police officer, which does not protect him from the violence — especially if he continues to resist joining in the corruption.

Now his dream is to become a United States citizen, and he is studying for his citizenship test. One minute, he is in an ugly institutional room talking with two government officials in skinny ties; the next, he is in a dreamscape. (There is nice work on both aspects of the scenic design by Kristen Robinson, and on the projection design by Paul Lieber.)

Then the skinny-tie men begin saying things that suggest they are Mormon missionaries, having wandered in from the Broadway musical hit “The Book of Mormon.” When asked whose God he prefers to pray to, Juan shoots back, “Whichever God help me be American faster.” (It should be noted that the playwright, who has Juan speak in less-than-flawless English, is an eighth-generation American, born in San Diego.)

If “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” were being produced today, and in the United States rather than in Britain, it might look a lot like “American Night.” Just as Juan is being asked to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in his dream, a large Mexican woman crosses the stage, pushing an electric floor buffer. Yes, this humor is a little more grave than dead parrots who were never alive and the Ministry of Silly Walks, but the line “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” may come to mind.

“American Night” loves irreverent character names like Crooked Cop No. 1 and Crooked Cop No. 2, although you would have to read the script to know that; the program just lumps the cast members’ smaller roles under “ensemble.” Happily, Shana Cooper, who directed, puts the silliness that those names represent front and center, as if the actors were wearing invisible ID tags. Ms. Cooper also directed Yale Rep’s inventive production of “Romeo and Juliet” last year.

The current production time-travels through American experiences with and attitudes toward immigration and race. That includes scenes dealing with the civil rights movement and the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II as well as over-the-top takeoffs like the one on an Asian television game show. Mr. Millán’s supporting cast — Austin Durant, Deidrie Henry, Felicity Jones, James Hiroyuki Liao, Gregory Linington, Richard Ruiz (a memorable Elvis), Nicole Shalhoub and Mr. Montoya himself (as Juan José the First) — deserve the warm applause they receive.

One of the most admirable aspects of Mr. Montoya’s work is that the humor serves the playwright’s point of view so well and yet can play happily with throwaway references to Walmart, the Olive Garden, cupcake wars and one character’s comment, when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez look-alikes perform old protest songs, that “the Occupy Wall Street movement could have used these two.”On second thought, maybe those lines aren’t so throwaway after all.

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