While the dream at the heart of “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose,” now playing through October 13 at the Yale Repertory Theatre’s University Theater in New Haven, may be a nightmare for the titular protagonist, it is equally capable of propelling an audience into thoughtful reflection and unrestrained laughter.
“American Night” is the result of a collaboration between the southern California based performance collective Culture Clash and director Jo Bonney and was written by one of Culture Clash’s three members, Richard Montoya, who also appears in a multitude of roles in this production. It recounts the story of Mexican immigrant, Juan Jose, on the eve of his American citizenship examination as his sleep is disturbed by wildly erratic images that represent the contradictions of the American dream, as exemplified by this country’s not always honorable treatment of minorities, immigrants, outsiders and the disenfranchised. Arriving as it does at the height of the Presidential campaign season, “American Night” is a reminder that theater can not only be topical, timely, and acerbic, but can also deliver such a message in a revelatory way.
What distinguishes “American Night” is that is more than just an enlongated “Saturday Night Live” routine. It contains elements of both slapstick and satire and tries to cover a lot of subjects that are not regularly encountered in comedy sketches, whether that be the conquest of the Aztecs by European colonials, the consequences of the Mexican-American war and Mexican police corruption. This is what I guess could be called “serious comedy,” a humor that triumphs over the deadly realities of history and of life that have thwarted the desires and dreams of good hearted people.
But there’s also plenty of antic humor to help allay the sense of suspense and danger that permeates Juan Jose’s nightmare. For mixed with our hero’s concern for his left-behind wife and the son he has never seen is his own unconscious mind’s attempts to match the patriotic fervor of his citizenship studies with his own experiences first as an illegal immigrant then as a resident alien worker that have provided him with an alternative look at American history. Thus historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln breeze through dreamscapes that also include such lesser knowns as the African-American frontier midwife and healer Viola Pettus, San Francisco union organizer Harry Bridges and 14-year old Emmett Till, the African-American youth killed by a lynch mob for allegedly gazing at a white woman.
Juan Jose’s dream, which is also filled with sounds and singing, takes him back and forth through history, stopping to engage in 40’s style swing with Japanese interred at relocation camps during World War II or listening to self-congratulatory folk singers embracing the youth culture at Woodstock. The evening builds to a cacophonic frenzy of thoughts and ideas covering a multitude of subjects from gay marriage to the self-righteousness of southern Christians, from the impact of layoffs to the rise of the angry black woman, as the full ensemble emerges from the audience and the wings to bring this dream to a wild and rowdy conclusion.
For a production such as “American Night” to be successful, the physical production must be as carefully planned as the written text, and under Shana Cooper’s direction, the resulting product does not disappoint. Kristen Robinson’s set designs, Martin T. Schnellinger’s costumes, Masha Tsimring’s lighting and Palmer Hefferan’s sound design all make essential contributions to the pointed humor of the evening. As in a dream, locations change frequently and quickly as characters appear and disappear without explanation. The design team assures that understanding remains clear, with all elements telegraphing immediate, appropriate cues to smoothly guide the audience through the visions in Juan Jose’s mind. There are any number of subtle touches that add to the evening’s hilarity, such as the tiny doll-like model of a Mexican baby complete with sombrero and the trademark cross swath of ammunition that has been stereotypically used to depict south-of-the-border banditos. In such a high-spirited, yet undeniably serious show, the atmosphere is enhanced as the cast frequently breaks into song and dance. The contributions of choreographer Ken Roht and singing coach Vicki McGuire are essential to conveying the free-wheeling digressions of Juan Jose’s worried mind.
Similarly, Cooper’s cast must be flexible, for just like in a dream, characters morph freely into other characters. For example, Juan Jose’s beloved Lydia, who he plans to bring to the States once he’s granted citizenship, shows up in the most unexpected places in his dream, even once as a Mexican revolutionary opposed to a treaty with America. Rene Millan, as Juan Jose, is the only actor to play a single role across the play and he creates a character who is earnest, honorable and endearing. He neatly integrates himself into the various situations in which his dream alter ego finds himself and, even amidst the absurdity and raucousness of some of situations, always manages to hang on to his humanity while never losing sight of his ultimate goal.
Other standouts include Nicole Shalhoub as the devoted Lydia who plays a firebrand in several situations, Richard Montoya, the playwright, limning Juan’s ancestors, Gregory Linington, whose Aussie Harry Bridges is one of his more thrilling roles, and Deidre Henry whose Viola Pettrus is both formidable and compassionate. James Hiroyuki Liao is impressive the internment camp’s resident bad boy and lothario, and he and Austin Durant are equally fine as a pair of Mormons who have set their sights on converting Juan Jose as he preps for his exam. (And it seems that ever since Tony Kushner wrote “Angels in America,” more and more Mormons keep popping into contemporary plays and musicals.)
While “American Night” is willing to tackle controversial subjects, especially from an unabashedly progressive point of view, it still tries to play it safe by remaining politically correct by its own rules and on its own terms. For example, most of the humor involving Mexican-Americans is voiced by the Mexican American actors in the cast and humor involving at Asian stereotypes is most frequently at the hands of the Asian Americans in the cast. Hiroyuki Liao does a deliciously on-target imitation of the American stereotype of a Japanese game show host, complete with the fast talking, indecipherable enthusiasm that adds extra syllables at the end of words. Richard Ruiz, however, is an all-purpose “offender,” whether he is playing a ample Mexican street merchant in drag, Teddy Roosevelt, or an Asian whiz-kid. Felicity Jones demonstrates her versatility in her many roles, the most memorable of which are a lowlife imitation of a game show glamour girl and a supercilious Christian housewife.
By making Juan Jose a legal alien on the cusp of citizenship, the writers have astutely tarring him specifically with all the issues surrounding illegal immigration, yet his personal story of escaping across the Rio Grande beyond the reach of the drug cartels ties assures that the subject is never too far from our minds.
There is also an underlying feeling of suspense that runs throughout the play, as one grows concerned about potential pitfalls that may greet Juan Jose on his journey to becoming an American, especially as the prejudice, violence and general absurdity of contemporary American life intrudes more and more into his dream. By the time our hero wakes from his dream, it’s not unexpected that he would be wavering, but you’ll have to see the show itself to find out what he does.
The professional standards of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the outstanding cast and creative team assure that “American Night” distinguishes itself as more than an exercise in sophomoric humor. Yes, there are plenty of jokes, both cerebral and physical, that delight and amuse, but they serve the higher purpose of enlightenment and understanding.
For tickets, call the Yale Repertory Box Office at 203.432.1234 or visit their website at www.yalerep.org.