The line-up of plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre has followed a kind of formula of late: a Shakespeare, a Sarah Ruhl, a new playwright, a classic, and a rollicking comedy. The latter slot this season is filled by the play currently running: Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney and directed by Shana Cooper. The play creates a fast-paced absurdist tale—a dream in the mind of Juan José (René Millán), a Mexican alien in the U.S. who is studying, aided by well-meaning Mormons, for his citizenship test. The idea that there can be a test for citizenship that is anything more than a trivia exam is central to the play as it proceeds to treat familiar aspects of U.S. history as the clichés and stereotypes they are. It’s a romp through U.S. bigotry and our political mixed signals that mixes corrosive wit with its good-natured mockery.
The best feature of the show is that the ensemble work, with each cast member but for Juan José—it’s his dream after all—enacting a host of caricatures, feels at times like a student show. I mean that in a good way (much of the great work here—in costumes, lighting, projections, scenic design, sound, and dramaturgy is provided by Yale School of Drama students). American Night isn’t loaded down with grand-standing star turns, grand speeches, or grandiose stage setting. It’s nimble projections, quick one-liners, madcap costumes, and its best sequence turns a stage show into a Town Meeting and vice versa, with a hand-held camera to add the ever ubiquitous eye that makes everything in our world a YouTube event. Montoya—part of the game cast—and company ooze the kind of acting brio that has long understood that “portraying” any ethnic type onstage is largely a matter of accent, body language and costuming. Armed with the ability to “be” anything, no one is anything, particularly. It’s a melting pot, you see.
Flying by on the circuit are folks like Teddy Roosevelt (Richard Ruiz), recognizable by his glasses, moustache, corpulence and tagline (“speak softly and carry a big schtick”); the white capitalist pig (Gregory Linington) in skivies or KKK regalia; the noble Negro frontier nurse (Deidrie Henry); the whacky Japanese gameshow host to offset the principled Japanese youth, interned during WWII (both James Hiroyuki Liao); Juan’s long-suffering wife, played by Nicole Shalhoub, one of the great assets of the production, who also enacts Sacagawea (or, as Juan would have it, Sacachiuaua) as an awkward teen with braces and neon yellow sneakers, not to mention Joan Baez, in her rainbow dress, matched by Montoya as Bob Dylan, bard of the Great Society, spouting lines like “America sucks—but it swallows!”; the feisty Tea-Partyer (Felicity Jones, looking like Linda McMahon) sounding off about American values at the Town Meeting; and, one of my favorite bits, Austin Durant as a multicultural character able to drawl like a yankee, jive like a brother, and pidgin like a Chinaman. Then there’s Millán, who mainly plays earnest bewilderment, led around not to learn the errors of his ways, but rather the many ways of error.
It’s all in the name of the tattered liberal banner, ultimately, with most of the digs going toward that 1% that just might be in the audience somewhere—or rather, the percentage of the 1% that might be at Yale simply to make a profit. The show, while irreverent—check out hippy Christ as a homeless person with no ID—never really goes for the jugular, and, while most of us might feel elbowed in the ribs at one point or another, tends to pat us on our backs for being enlightened. Montoya and Culture Clash are sharp in assessing that in this time of endlessly replicated “commentary” we might all benefit from laughter about the issues that continue to divide the U.S, and, as with the laws on immigration, can make life hell for those trying to belong here. The best way to belong is to know what to mock, and when.
American Night is at its best when it surprises or delights with its mash-ups or suddenly makes something trivial seem meaningful—as when the radio announcer in the WWII segment signs off with “good night America and all its ships at sea,” recalling a time when—as nostalgia would have it—there was a palpable commonality in that declaration. The play is also very much of its moment in reflecting to us a world where all the myths, legends, stereotypes, clichés, and actual facts of America spin and collide and ricochet like free-range particles in the cyclotron of pop culture. While it’s true of the U.S. that “everyone comes from somewhere,” our “somewhere” also goes everywhere. American Night replays back to us the lessons of our history that continue to lessen in meaning as they disperse globally.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan José By Richard Montoya Developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney Directed by Shana Cooper
Choreographer: Ken Roht; Scenic Designer: Kristen Robinson; Costume Designer: Martin T. Schnellinger; Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring; Sound Designer: Palmer Heffernan; Projection Designer: Paul Lieber; Production Dramaturg: Lauren Dubowski; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire; Singing Coach: Vicki Shaghoian; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle
Yale Repertory Theatre September 21 to October 13, 2012