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Cal Shakes Play Cleverly Burlesques Immigration, Bias

In “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” (from left) Sean San José finds his fantasies populated by Sharon Lockwood as a TV model, Richard Ruiz as a Sumo wrestler and Todd Nakagawa as a Japanese game show host. Photo: Kevin Berne.
In “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” (from left) Sean San José finds his fantasies populated by Sharon Lockwood as a TV model, Richard Ruiz as a Sumo wrestler and Todd Nakagawa as a Japanese game show host. Photo: Kevin Berne.

 

It’s a textbook definition of madcap.

And, just maybe, a slapshtick, satirical, cartoonish, silly, farcical, Monte Python-ish, Saturday Night Live-ish dream-state to boot.

But its glue is seriousness.

And since American Night: The Ballad of Juan José is playing only through June 23 at the California Shakespeare Theater, you might choose to get thyself to Orinda with alacrity.

It’s indisputably worth a trip from Marin, San Francisco or Berkeley.

I’m glad I saw it.

Not unconditionally, though, because the play’s occasionally choppy and disjointed.

Call it uneven, but, like an old Henny Youngman routine crammed with one-liners, it doesn’t matter if you miss a gag or two because the next one undoubtedly can make you chuckle, chortle or laugh aloud.

What’s The Ballad really all about, besides immigration and prejudice? Probably only playwright Richard Montoya, a member of the legendary Latino comedy group Culture Clash, knows for sure because he throws in just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.

There’s no doubt, however, the clever show wraps itself in the un-linear, surreal cloak of a Mexican emigre’s fantasy/dream/vision the night before his citizenship test.

And thought-balloon homage is paid to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, and Indian guide Sacajawea and explorers Lewis and Clark.

But The Ballad is largely amusing, a hodgepodge lesson in pop culture and history.

At times intentionally anachronistic.

Director Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes artistic chieftain, ensures it speeds ahead with a purposeful lack of political correctness.

Moscone has praised Montoya for putting “1,001 ideas into this play — tone shifts on a dime, as does character, situation, and relationship. This is one helluva dream.” He also contends the playwright “writes like a musician — a jazz musician to be specific. He riffs, he shifts direction.”

The result? Something not unlike the San Francisco Mime Troupe at its best.

Better?

The Ballad is first-rate when it playfully reveals Juan José’s obsession with becoming a U.S. citizen — including his wading into the waters of organized religion, first Catholicism, then Protestantism, Unitarianism, Scientology and Mormonism.

But not everything works unerringly.

A sequence in which an African-American, Viola Pettus, nurses Klansmen and Mexican refugees alike in the 1918 flu pandemic runs too long.  

The same with a scenario in a Japanese internment camp.

Modern references generally add humor, as do groan-inducing puns and set pieces such as an “I Love Lucy”-like assembly line.

Wild accusations from Tea Partyers are funny.

As is the rapid banter between characters: “Do you know how to plow a field, boy?” “No, but I will Google it.”

Endless quick-changes of wigs and costumes by Martin Schnellinger, fitting like the gaudy rainbow gloves he intended, also entertain — and frequently astonish.

Sean San José interprets Juan José as an earnest counterpoint to everything else that’s happening (“I am between countries right now”), while Dena Martinez plays his wife Lydia and a bevy of others (including a couple of males) with exaggerated abandon.

Actually, all nine cast members except for San José fill supporting roles more numerous and diverse than I could take notes on. Dan Hiatt wonderfully burlesques, for example, West Coast labor leader Harry Bridges and a KKK head honcho, and Richard Ruiz agilely darts between Teddy Roosevelt and notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

And Brian Rivera draws the biggest laughs with his takeoff of Bob Dylan.

Sound designer Cliff Caruthers audio effects are noticeable throughout only because they’re so often a cheerful earful; Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is impeccably timed and, shall I risk it, illuminating; and Erik Flatmo’s simple, fluid set does the job flawlessly.

Aiding the production are local references (to a “Livermore casino,” the fact that “the Caldicott always backs up,” and having “a nice militia in Danville).

Mucho gunplay, although the NRA might not approve, becomes ammunition for laughs.

It seems impossible not to grin a lot at the 105-minute show, regardless of how much night breezes chill Cal Shakes’ solar powered Bruns Memorial Auditorium.

So I did.

And I marveled at allusions to just about every soul who’s ever basked in 15 minutes of fame. Hold on a sec.

On second thought, The Ballad isn’t all-inclusive after all: It skipped Justin Bieber, “Bull” Connor and Lady Gaga.

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José plays at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, through June 23. Night performances, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Matinees, 2 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $72, subject to change, (510) 548-9666 or www.calshakes.org.

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