AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSÉ, which just opened a three weeks’ run at the Western Stage Studio, is a romping, irreverent darkly ironic take on centuries of culture clash between America and the immigrants seeking asylum or citizenship inside its walls. The prevailing tone of hard-hitting slapstick is a challenge the cast of nine work hard to meet. The range of its historic subject matter will probably be a challenge to some audiences. But I’m glad I saw it all the same.
The “night” of the title is the night before a chronically hopeful Mexican everyman figure named Juan José is due to take his exam for American citizenship. He falls asleep over his pack of US Constitution flash cards and dreams an extended and crazy panorama of past conflicts between America and a world full of threatening outsiders.
Throughout the evening Adrian Torres plays Juan José with a wide-eyed explosive optimism. The remaining eight members of the cast together take on the roles of more than eighty other characters who fill in his waking hours with ICE border agents and Mormon missionaries and his sleepy-time encounters with a succession of erratic historic dream figures. Like a time traveler, he dazzles Lewis and Clark (Jack Clifford and Donna Federico) with the detail and accuracy of his AAA tour maps and politely declines their invitation to join an accommodating Shoshone matron named Sacagawea (DeAnna Diaz) as a guide on their westward trek. Whisked ahead in time, he meets and honors Ben and Viola Pettus, (Terrance Smith and Denisha Ervin) a heroic but unsung African American couple who runs a frontier tent hospital during a 19th century flu epidemic. He suffers the slings and arrows of World War 1 anti-anarchist panic, gets tangled in Depression capital and labor battles, meets Dylan and Baez at Woodstock and gets uplift and encouragement from Jackie Robinson. The show has a surreal and noisy brashness in keeping with author Richard Montoya’s years of work with the Bay Area political comedy troupe Culture Clash.
As always, director Lorenzo Aragon sets up the sight-gags, the group mob movements and the individual one-liners with seasoned skill. But of all theatrical genres, farce is punishingly hard to play and farce with a sharp ironic edge is harder still. It’s one thing to establish a realistic stage character in relation to a stage-full of other realistic characters. It’s something else to change costume, persona and motivation every few minutes while trying to get laughs and make important political and social plot points clearly enough to insure that everyone in the audience gets it. Here, it works best in the simpler single issue two-header sequences like Andrés Ortiz bugle-blasting his way into the boots and panama hat of a bombastic Teddy Roosevelt who’s so intent on bellowing patriotic platitudes and shooting wild animals that he never connects with the befuddled Juan José he is supposed to be meeting. The production is notably weaker in its bigger, busier group scenes. The extended 1940s radio game show sequence with its hodge-podge of World War 2 racial and social controversies is confused and puzzling. Despite a lot of loud argument and some Glenn Miller background music the energy flags and the cast struggle in a foggy tangle of obscure issues.
And that, in its way, is a problem with the show as a whole, important and relevant as its premise is. Montoya’s script sweeps through such a big swath of complicated historic territory that, unless you’re a committed history buff, you’re apt to be more than occasionally baffled. Important pieces of American history are being sent up; but if that’s all you know, you don’t get the joke. I was okay with the later crowd sequence where American bigots bicker with a noisy labor activist in 1930s San Francisco. But that’s only because I spent my primary and middle school years in the Bay Area, so I knew at once that the nasal Australian, skillfully caricatured by Jack Clifford, was a longshoreman labor boss named Harry Bridges. I wondered how many other opening night fans would be as baffled by Bridges as I was by that wartime game show.
All that said, American Night is an important show. Once again Western Stage takes the risk of producing something that speaks to who we are and what we face here and now as Americans. Some of the details will, as they did for me, send you scurrying back to David McCullough and Ron Chernow. But the roller coaster ride of bits of skewed history is at least a reminder that border wall fantasies and mindless xenophobia didn’t spring suddenly into being with the inauguration of Donald Trump.