AISLE SAY San Francisco

The Ballad of Juan José

by Richard Montoya
Developed by Culture Clash & Jo Bonney
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Bruns Memorial Amphitheater
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA / (510) 548-9666

Reviewed by Judy Richter

On the eve of taking his final test for American citizenship, a legal Mexican immigrant has fantastical dreams in "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" by Richard Montoya.

Juan, well played by Sean San José in this California Shakespeare Theater production, has been studying American history. He sees portions of it in a dream, starting in the early 19th century with the Lewis and Clark expedition and continuing to the present. Thus, he meets some brave but little-known heroes as well as more familiar figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan and Harry Bridges.

San José is the only actor in the cast of six men and three women who portrays one character. Everyone else fills multiple roles, giving costume designer Martin Schnellinger and the uncredited wig designer major challenges that they meet successfully.

One of Margo Hall's more memorable characters is Viola Pettus, a black nurse who cared for Spanish flu victims -- be they Mexican, Ku Klux Klan or otherwise -- in 1918 in West Texas. Dan Hiatt is the Klansman as well as labor leader Harry Bridges and a Mormon who assists Juan in his waking hours.

Dena Martinez is seen as Juan's wife, whom he left behind in Mexico with their infant son, as well as Sacagewea, the young Indian guide for Lewis and Clark. She displays her singing and guitar playing talents when she portrays Joan Baez at Woodstock.

Others in this versatile cast, so well directed by Jonathan Moscone, are Sharon Lockwood, Todd Nakagawa, Brian Rivera, Richard Ruiz and Tyee Tilghman.

"American Night" premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 as a commission in its epic American history series. The play fits into that genre because of its portrayal of prejudice against immigrants and minorities of all kinds through the decades. Hence there's a segment about Japanese Americans in the Manzanar internment camp during World War II. Later, a young techie brags about being a Stanford grad, only to lose his job when it's outsourced to India.

As a co-founder of Culture Clash, a 30-year-old Chicano troupe known for "politically sharp sketch comedy and 'slapstick-erudite sociology,' " according to CST dramaturg Philippa Kelly, Montoya liberally laces the play with those qualities.

However, some segments are too long. They include Manzanar and negotiation of the treaty that ended the Mexican American War in 1848 and ceded California and other Western lands to the United States.

Erik Flatmo's simple set serves the play well, but lighting designer Tyler Micoleau directs blinding spotlights into the audience several times. Likewise, Cliff Caruthers over amplifies sounds of gunfire.

Running an hour and 45 minutes without intermission, the play nevertheless holds one's attention because of the content and cast. All that -- and the opening night of the season was unusually warm in this beautiful outdoor venue, which can often be quite chilly.

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