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. 


The Beauty Queen of Leenane

By Jocelyn McMahon

MANY OF US have experienced or witnessed some unusual family dynamics, some of the strangest being the mother-daughter relationship. But to put a new perspective on family issues, simply peek into the life of Mag and Maureen Folan, the central characters in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first of a trilogy that debuted in 1996.

Stuck in a dreary life, the isolated duo, Mag, an ornery aging spinster, and her frustrated daughter, Maureen, who has grown bitter having dedicated her life to caring for her ungrateful mother only to become a spinster herself. The two spend their days fighting a never-ending guilt war that can only be described as, well, sadistic. A cruel competition of who can make the other feel worse, their daily banter consists of debates over who might kill whom first (hypothetically of course). Caught in a trap of co-dependency and spite, this twisted relationship takes its course as Maureen finally gets her first, and probably last, chance at love with Pato, a local construction worker, and Mag sets out to wreck it by confiscating and destroying a note Pato’s younger brother Ray brings to the house for Maureen. This relationship is enough to make anyone’s family issues look mild in comparison.

We see little chance for growth and opportunity in McDonagh’s writing, and when it does arrive, it is soon crushed as these realistic characters face absurdly ruinous conflicts. McDonagh explores irony like no other in both his scripts and screenplays, most famously his 2017 Oscar-nominated Film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which did win Oscars for both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell). And though his stories offer little to no hope, his distinct and absurdist style that is often described as dark humor (putting it mildly) hooks audiences and manages to keep them engaged throughout the rough subject matter explored in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. His running jokes, my favorite being the dispute over the preparation of Mag’s Complan, a vile-sounding type of powdered chicken soup, helps us get to know the characters and lighten the subject matter under review including isolation, manipulation, abuse and even murder. 

The single-set show slowly opens on the dismal kitchen/living area of the home of Mag and Maureen, where the audience will remain stuck, as the characters are, for the remainder of the show. One must quickly adapt to the dialect of West Coast Ireland and the slow-paced timing demonstrative of the culture, but though it may take a moment to get used to, in no way does this make the show boring; conversely, it immediately transports the audience into the scene where the bar for emotional drama is set high at the outset.

A small but potent cast understands the script inside and out and builds a realistic community that is well-acted by all.

Karel K Wright’s crotchety Mag commands the stage as we see her character flip-flop from convincing helpless old lady into full-on manipulative beast. She has clear command of the dialect and is well-understood. She can make your skin crawl with never ending-grievances, but her vulnerability shines through as we discover the insecurities that motivate her actions.

Meanwhile Julie James’ Maureen dishes it right back as we see what years of emotional enslavement and abuse can do to a person. And yet somewhere deep down we know she loves her mostly domineering mother, otherwise why would she stay? Her performance accurately portrays the lonely ache of an old spinster mixed with the naivety of a young maid; there were just a few moments where it was hard to understand her under the Irish accent.

Andrew Davids is mind-blowing as Pato, originally just the local heartthrob that spends the night with Maureen and promises her hope for a future outside Leenane, Davids adds so much more to the character and conveys a depth in his sincerity that makes him the ultimate protagonist (in no way cliché). His monologue at the top of Act 2 is one of the highlights of the show.

Though some might argue that Ray, besides being a messenger, is possibly disposable in the overall plot. Travis Rynders has a great command of the character and adds a layer of depth that explores the frustration and rage of being expendable. His scenes with Mag are effective as the two are initially at odds, but slowly form a bond as they understand the feeling of being easily forgotten, and Mag makes him feel useful, even if her underlying intent is merely to exploit him.

McDonagh’s writing is genius, with its own form of morbid sarcasm and wit; it can be easily misinterpreted and takes a specific type of person to direct it (probably why he directs many of his own films). However, Susan Myer Silton’s vision is clear as day in her direction. A piece that could be easily misunderstood, or come across as mournful or even silly, it maintains its initial intent and stays poignant and humorous throughout. “The play exposes the underside of the unspoiled refuge that is Ireland’s West Coast,” Silton writes in her director’s note, “…The alienating, marginalizing and soul eroding effects of its isolated setting.”

A beautiful venue, the Colligan Theater rarely gets to flash its technical muscles in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. However, the artistic choices do not go unnoticed. The dark living room is highlighted by a realistic window displaying a picturesque view that is actually a wide screen digital monitor set right behind the window. Though it is a view tourists would travel thousands of miles to see, no one seems happy, and as the show progresses the window seems to exemplify the feeling of something that could have been, but never was, a feeling revisited throughout The Beauty Queen of Leenane. And while the rotating stage was only utilized briefly, it takes a quarter turn at the end of Act 2 when we see a glimmer of hope for Maureen and Pato to escape their dismal life. Sadly, it never comes to be and the stage returns to its initial state by the end of the show.

We see every character in this play grapple with his or her insecurities. Some characters pit those insecurities against each other and use manipulation to protect themselves. At the end of the day each character is dealt a terrible hand of cards and is forced to play them. As actor and artistic director of Jewel Theatre, Julie James writes, “I didn’t set out wanting a scene in which those things happened to those people, but if you create the logic of that story it’s going to end up in that dark place. The characters are going to converge like the iceberg and the Titanic.” This motivation is well conveyed as you see these quirky characters face scenarios where things could turn out for the better, but where everything goes incredibly wrong. 

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo