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History lessons with the Culture Clash seal

'American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,' whose earnest themes are leavened with humor, is a hot ticket at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

August 16, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

Richard Montoya says he's "obsessed with the night" and the history-making players that go bump in it.

Fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Mexican immigrants wading across the Rio Grande. Radical labor organizers and hard-line Arizona sheriffs. Lewis and Clark and Jackie Robinson, Sacagawea and Joan Baez, Fidel Castro and Malcolm X.

While a few of these nocturnal convergences are historical facts, others are simply dramatic metaphors and theatrical phantasms. But all of them somehow wander their way into "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José," the new play by Montoya and Culture Clash that's one of the toughest tickets to come by at this summer's Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"Under the cover of darkness we find out who we are as Americans," says Montoya, actor, playwright and co-founder with Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas of Culture Clash, the L.A.-based ensemble that for 25 years has been fusing politically probing sketch seriocomedy with slapstick-erudite sociology.

"American Night," a characteristic Culture Clash mixture of earnest themes leavened with topical humor, antic stagecraft and irreverent portrayals of famous personages, opened June 29 and runs through Oct. 31. It's inaugurating "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle," the OSF's new decade-long series of up to 37 original plays (matching Shakespeare's career total) dealing with "moments of change" in U.S. history. Alison Carey, the cycle's director and the OSF's associate director, says that Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch and she thought the immigrant-themed "American Night" would be an ideal and extremely timely work to launch the series.

As co-founders of L.A.'s Cornerstone Theatre Company, Carey and Rauch also were familiar with Culture Clash's previous works, several of which have used mongrel theater forms to explore America's mixed ethnic and cultural identity.

"If we can inspire conversation about the core values of our country," Carey says, "I would love that to happen."

The play's central conceit involves a Mexican immigrant, Juan José (played by René Millán, who lapses into a fever dream while studying for his U.S. citizenship exam.

Out of Juan José's mind springs a vision of the nation's history shaped by ceaseless waves of immigrants as well as by those who aided or resisted their becoming a new thread in the national fabric.

"The idea which has stayed with the piece is looking at these people who at the darkest times in American history have poured light, who have shown good about America during times that are very bad about America," says Jo Bonney, the play's Australian-born director, who was sworn in as a U.S. citizen four days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president.

In the course of Juan José's centuries-spanning, intermission-less 93-minute odyssey, he's swept up in a 'tea party' rally and the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (in which the defeated Mexico yielded about one-third of its territory to the U.S.). He crosses paths with Ralph Lazo, a Mexican Irish American Angeleno teenager who chose to accompany his friends to the World War II Japanese internment camp at Manzanar; and Viola Pettus, an African American Texas nurse who ministered to all and sundry, regardless of ethnicity or social stature, during the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. Her patients even reportedly included Ku Klux Klansmen's kin.

Among the other characters performed by the nine-member cast, which includes Montoya and Siguenza, is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona lawman who has been in the eye of the current immigration-debate whirlwind. The play even nods to one of the Bard's offerings at this year's festival, "The Merchant of Venice," when a character paraphrases Shylock: "Hath not a Mexican eyes?"

To make the history lessons go down smoothly, there are generous dollops of disarming, equal-opportunity-offender jibes bearing the Culture Clash seal. Sample: an infant Klansman's offspring comes complete with its own miniature hooded head.

The show has been selling at 98% capacity of the festival's New Theatre stage, and critics have heaped praised. A Sacramento Bee reviewer described it as a "brilliant, satiric whirlwind," and a critic for the Mail Tribune in southern Oregon called it "a boisterous, rollicking, surreal, postmodern, postracial (warning: Some descriptions may contain irony) journey into American history."

Montoya says that audience members, whatever their political persuasion, have come to sympathize with the play's hero, as performed by the charismatic Millán. "He's got, like, 2% body fat, which really helps," Montoya says.

Although there's no plan to bring "American Night" to Los Angeles, Montoya says it's "a no-brainer" that the show will be seen here, "and by that time, in a year or two hopefully, we will have a home there at the Westlake Theatre in MacArthur Park

Montoya has an added incentive for making sure that "American Night" gets seen by as many people as possible: Just two weeks before the show opened, he and his wife became the proud parents of a new baby boy, Mountain Malaquias Velasco Montoya.

"I try to keep that in mind every day I do this piece, we do use a lot of humor and a lot of comedy, but the stakes are very high for the people trying to cross that desert. Not to be melodramatic, but it's really about life and death," he says.

"At some point I have to sit my son down and tell him about this."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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