If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Yale Offers a Wild “American Night”
Where else if not at Yale? The New Haven institution has opened its season with yet another wild theatrical ride with Richard Montoya’s fever dream of a satire, “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose.” This messily brilliant adventure about ongoing immigrant controversies in America may divide audiences, but it is never less than thought-provoking. Or entertaining.
Juan Jose is a Mexican immigrant who, at the start of “American Night”, is preparing for his U.S. citizenship test in order to make a better life for him and his pregnant wife still in Mexico. Juan has bought into the promise of the American Dream hook, line and sinker and is desperate to pass. This established, “American Night” quickly dissolves into dreamscape storytelling that has our hero become a sort of Mexican Zelig, journeying through 200 years of American history and meeting everyone from Teddy Roosevelt and Lewis and Clark, to the Indian princess Sacagawea and singer Bob Dylan.
Playwright Richard Montoya, in a work developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney, digs deep into the underbelly of the American Dream. He casts a critical eye by exploiting stereotypes and racial injustices, while exposing slavery, the detention of Asian citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the hypocrisy of the American Tea Party movement. In content it reminded me of George C. Wolfe’s 1987 classic “The Colored Museum” while lacking that satire’s focused structure. Montoya covers a lot of ground here, maybe too much. There are plenty of laughs, some labored jokes, sophomoric jabs and dull stretches, but the play also has a solid 30 minute finale (it runs under two hours without intermission) that just may leave you breathless.
It also has a superior cast of actors beginning with Rene Millan as Jose. The actor has played the role previously and the experience shows as he completely inhabits all the conflicts and passions of his character. He is the solid center of this twisted historical journey. The remaining ensemble, which includes Mr. Montoya, switch roles, costumes and accents with admirable finesse. Chief among these are James Hiroyuki Liao, excellent as an Asian greaser and several other roles and Nicole Shalhoub, who portrays Jose’s very pregnant wife as well as Sacagawea and Joan Baez. Talk about range! Kristen Robinson’s fluid, creative scenic design (with excellent projection work by Paul Lieber), the kaleidoscopic lighting by Masha Tsimring, sound by Palmer Hefferan and parade of American history costuming by Martin T. Schnellinger all impress.
The play could still use some tightening especially during that first hour. Satires, in general, can wear out their welcome even with a play that is as up-to-date as the recent Presidential debate (yes, it’s mentioned). Director Shana Cooper would also do well to give more clarity and enunciation notes to her actors. With satire this pungent, you don’t want to miss a word.
“American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose” continues at the University Theatre at Yale Rep through October 13. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.