Tuesday, February 7, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" at La Jolla Playhouse

Proud to be an "American"?

La Jolla Playhouse’s irreverent immigration play is full of passion, heart, and humor

By Donnie Matsuda

Question: What do an African-American West Texas cowboy, a rebellious Japanese-American teenager, and a member of the Klu Klux Klan all have in common?

They are all characters who figure rather prominently Juan José’s fantastical dream journey in American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, the latest project by provocative Chicano theatre troupe Culture Clash.

(L to R) Stephanie Beatriz, René Millán, and Richard Montoya. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Originally written for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 and now being presented by La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with Center Theatre Group, American Night tells the tale of Mexican national Juan José as he feverishly and fervently studies for his U.S. citizenship exam. With the radio blaring in the background and with his Citizen’s Almanac of U.S. history perched in his lap, Juan falls asleep and travels back in time to both famous and no-so-famous events in American history, where he meets a cast of colorful characters who make him question what it really means to be an American. Among them are: Lewis and Clark, legendary explorers who explored the Western U.S. in the early 1800s; Viola Pettus, an African-American woman who treated victims of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918; Cleofis Virgil, a member of the KKK; Johnny Yamamori, a Japanese-American teen interned at Manzanar internment camp; Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to become a Major League baseball player; Harry Bridges, an influential Australian-American union leader; and the signers of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ended the Mexican-American War and ceded much of Mexico’s land to the U.S.).

If that sounds like a lot of historical ground to cover in an easy, breezy one-act play, it certainly is. And the rather incredulous journey Juan takes in search of his American Dream (which at times is more like a nightmare) is definitely all over the map. In this sprawling production, there are even a few nods to San Diego itself, including a stern warning that anyone whose cell phone goes off during the show will promptly be deported to Chula Vista, a shameless representation of the religious right in Fallbrook, and a whole lot of digs at Hillcrest, Ocean Beach, and El Cajon. You know, cities filled with those kinds of people.

René Millán and company. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

But it is through his stylistically diverse dream journey (which here incorporates a number of magically heightened motifs, including musical theatre, broadly comic storytelling, brash sketch comedy, and even a live radio play) that Juan José experiences some sobering truths about the ugly side of American history, including our embarrassingly racist past and utterly unjust assumptions about immigrants of all kinds. Fortunately, these touchy topics are relatively easy to digest thanks to the cutting comedy brilliantly penned by playwright Richard Montoya and the uniformly strong performances delivered by La Jolla’s lively and game ensemble cast.

At the heart of it all is a winning René Millán as Juan José. Millán (who himself was born and raised in Logan Heights) brings both fresh-faced idealism and unrelenting passion to the role, as he genuinely conveys the struggle of a Mexican policeman who hungers for a better life for himself and his family. As his expecting wife (and many other characters including a lisping, bespectacled Sacajawea and a tough rebellious teen boy, Ralph) Stephanie Beatriz is a genius at impersonation. A true comic chameleon, she seamlessly morphs from one captivating character to the next and proves she has the acting chops to take on just about any personality imaginable. On top of that, she’s blessed with a gloriously sweet soprano that is beautifully integrated into some of the characters she portrays.

(L to R) Daisuke Tsuji, René Millán, and Stephanie Beatriz. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

And playwright and Culture Clash co-founder Richard Montoya (a San Diego native himself) even gets in on the action, playing Juan’s father with a brazen air. He also steps into the shoes of a Bob Dylan-like character and croons “Blowin’ in the Wind” as part of the show’s 1960’s segment. Meanwhile, another Culture Clash co-founder Herbert Siguenza plays a mean Neil Diamond and his rendition of “Coming to America” turns into a song and dance spectacular that very nearly brings the house down.

The rest of the top-notch cast includes: Rodney Gardiner, David Kelly, Terri McMahon, Kimberly Scott, and Daisuke Tsuji. All of them deserve kudos for taking on an incredible number of supporting roles and for delivering such strong, polished performances.

(L to R) Daisuke Tsuji and René Millán. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Director and co-creator Jo Bonney has a lot of fun honing the biting satire and the zany physicality of the piece. There are a lot of sketchy segments, all of varying lengths and covering vast historical time periods, and Bonney does an admiral job of taking these diverse, unrelated threads and weaving them into an almost seamless whole. While some overly simplistic scenes in the middle tend to drag down the show’s mostly breakneck pace, it is still a highly entertaining and incredibly humorous 90 minutes of fun. And Bonney’s speedy staging is greatly enhanced by some stunning and breathtaking projection animations designed by Shawn Sagady and some outlandish and exquisite costumes designed by Emilio Sosa.

So, as we come to the end of Juan’s fantastical fantasy journey, there is only one question that remains: When will the irreverent Culture Clash take us on their next exciting and educational voyage?

Given their fresh, funny, and first-rate production of American Night, the answer is not soon enough.

Things to know before you go: American Night: The Ballad of Juan José plays at the Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse through February 26, 2012. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays/Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays/Fridays/Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm and Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit www.lajollaplayhouse.org.

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