Shana Cooper

History Lessens

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


Such Sweet Sorrow

You want to know something? William Shakespeare was a master playwright. That's the immediate observation to be made after seeing Romeo and Juliet at the Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Shana Cooper, a Yale School of Drama grad, with a cast featuring many second and third year actors from the School, as well as a few notable former students. In other words, it’s Old Home Week at the Yale Rep, and nothing says, “Old Home” like a return to a venerable classic by our tongue’s most widely lauded, taught, and re-enacted playwright. The greatest success of Cooper's vision for this production is that it makes one marvel at how Old Bill manages to mix violence (feuding families that, in this modern dress and highly active version—credit Fight Director Rick Sordelet—recall gangland battles, mob hostilities, and, of course, The Sharks and The Jets from West Side Story, which was a variation on R&J to begin with), hilarity (The Nurse is always funny, and Cynthia Mace makes the most of it, adding plenty of Yenta charm, but does anyone talk about how funny Balthasar is? After seeing Blake Segal in the role, you will.), death (five corpses by the end—the death-begat-death structure is well-known, but it seems to me that the death of Countee Paris (Ben Horner, dutiful in a thankless role) isn’t always played, though here it is, and it gives more tooth to Romeo, sometimes seen as a fey ladies’ man, to see him kill a member of each of the other leading families), generational tensions, familial difficulties (the Capulets are given much presence, thanks to Christina Rouner’s affecting portrayal as Juliet’s mother, svelte as hell in a black funeral dress, mixing comic touches and frenetic, modern-mother-at-her-wits’-end gestures with stormy mourning over her possum-playing daughter, and Andy Murray, blunt and muscular, with a Jason Statham look and shades of an East End delivery, as he berates Tybalt (Marcus Henderson, dangerous and seething) as an upstart, and later his daughter for her contrary ways, underscoring that there’s something rotten in the house of Capulet), flights of fancy (boy, that Mercutio (John Patrick Doherty) can talk!, and here he’s as gay as you probably always assumed he was, but Michael Jackson didn’t grab his own crotch as often as Doherty thrusts his), jokes (most coming from Mercutio—to say nothing of some comic butt baring), poetic musings (Friar Laurence (Henry Stram) in a lovely little soliloquy that slows everything down just when it needs to—consummate craftsman, our Will), the best romantic badinage ever written (and placed in the mouths of teens), and all the tragic baggage of “star-cross’d lovers” (a hoary enough conceit even in The Bard’s day), and gets away with it—more, establishes a bar that has never been bettered.

So what about those lovers, eh? I can’t think of Romeo without recalling the Shakespearean actor in a Monty Python skit who recalled he was “frightfully awkward with all that happy prancing” the role requires. Our Romeo (Joseph Parks) is anything but awkward, and prance he does. He also swings from bars and wears an ape costume (with sneakers). In fact, one of the pleasures of this production is watching Parks own the stage; his is a tight, sinewy Romeo, in physical presence, but his delivery has few nuances—it’s all exhortatory cadences, making every speech a song in the same key. I found myself longing for a more varied music. And that extends also to his lady love, Juliet (Irene Sofia Lucio), though for a different reason. Lucio is great as the winsome teen of the first half—she acts the age (not yet fourteen) that Juliet is supposed to be—and rises to splendor in Juliet’s long riff on the word “banished,” managing to make Will’s asides-within-asides jump nimbly to the rising despair she feels. But, as Hamlet says, “something too much of this.” I couldn’t help feeling that this Juliet was out of touch with the world she inhabited—a shambles of warring families and preening coxcombs, where even her Man of the Hour kills in haste and repents at leisure, and quits her bed like the Captain of the Team who just scored the winning goal and has to hit the showers. I found myself longing for the tones of today’s teen queen, more deadpan irony, less fluttery gush.

Finally, as is usually the case at the Rep, the technical stuff is all great: Costume Designer Leon Dobkowski has fun, so you can too; the set (Po-Lin Li) and lighting (Laura J. Eckelman) enhance all that verbal poetry with some of the visual kind: the figures lurking in the shadows were a nice touch, but even better was the odd, background mound, and the upper story gave a sense of a proscenium-within-the-proscenium, especially when that big bed was center stage; and Composer Gina Leishman’s music added commentary—the first half Curtain sounded like a Twin Peaks-style Soap score, archly suggesting bathos and something sinister to come.

The production will be enacted for area high school students through the WILL POWER! program, and should go over well with a young adult audience—for what teen hasn’t envisioned his or her own death as the “serves ‘em right” payback to overbearing parents? As Aristotle would say, that’s catharsis, folks!

The Yale Repertory Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Directed by Shana Cooper

March 11 to April 2, 2011