American Night: The Ballad of Juan José

 By Philip Pearce

 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. 

 

Weekly Magazine

THIS WEEK

MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL this weekend at Monterey Fairgrounds. SORDID LIVES opens at Mountain Community Theater. BATTLE OF THE BIG BANDS in Carmel. AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSÉ opens at The Western Stage. For links to these and other live performance events, click our CALENDAR and on the ads, left. 

HAIMOVITZ & HIS GOFFRILLER REUNITED

MAJOR DAMAGE to the instrument more than a year ago is finally repaired. Matt Haimovitz has played for Philip Glass in Big Sur. Click HERE   

PAYING LOCAL DUES

PHILIP GLASS’ Days & Nights Festival, for all its virtues and value for advocating the cause of new music, has never caught on with Monterey Bay audiences. It is not for want of talent and excellence, but rather a failure to connect with the area’s movers and shakers in that world of music. Those of us who have lived and engaged in the cultural life of the Monterey Bay have seen this scenario play out over and over. Failure has proved the coin of the realm for interlopers who have simply not paid their local respects. Philip Glass desperately wants to stake a claim here but, after years of trying, his festival has only scored well with small audiences. His local organization administrators appear to think that an expensive ad budget will turn the tide, but ultimately the fault lies with Glass himself. As a dedicated advocate for new music, I wish it weren’t so, just as I wish he would finally recognize that forming reciprocal relationships with like-minded area producers and presenters works best for each instead of assuming that his international reputation gives him automatic local cachet. SM

VIOLINIST DECLARES WAR ON WAR

UKRAINIAN MARINA BONDAS is determined to restore cultural values to her homeland. Click HERE  

PRESERVING SACRED SOUNDS

175 YEARS OF HENRY WILLIS organs in Britain.

WHAT VIOLA DAVIS REGRETS ABOUT ‘THE HELP’

THE ACCLAIMED FILM got it wrong, “…it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”  Click HERE  

ON CREATIVITY

2019 MARKS THE 200TH ANNIVERSARY of American poet Walt Whitman’s birth. Maria Popova explores his breakout Leaves of Grass. Click HERE   

WORLD’S LARGEST PERFORMING ARTS CENTER IS IN…?

TAIWAN. Now completed and set to open in October. Click HERE

HONKY TONK WOMEN

ROLLING STONES forty-nine years on.

FRESH REVIEW

MADELINE JARZEMBAK harp recital at Cabrillo Samper Recital Hall. Click HERE

NEXT WEEK

PIANIST GARRICK OHLSSON performs in Santa Cruz. CHINESE WARRIORS OF PEKING at World Theater in Seaside. PIANIST YEKWON SUNWOO plays for the Carmel Music Society. MONTEREY PENINSULA GOSPEL COMMUNITY CHOIR in Salinas. SANTA CRUZ CHAMBER PLAYERS season premiere in Aptos. DAYS & NIGHTS FEST plays Big Sur. SWEET JAZZ@EMBASSY in Seaside.

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Scott MacClelland, editor; Rebecca CR Brooks, associate editor