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Theater review: Culture Clash's 'American Night' at Kirk Douglas

March 12, 2012 | 11:57 am

American Night Photo 7
Speak softly and carry a big schtick: That’s the guiding principle of “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” Richard Montoya’s fast-paced fantasia on U.S. history, now running rampant at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Developed in collaboration with Culture Clash, the gleeful “Night” uses sketch comedy, song and a dizzying number of wigs to survey the glories and pratfalls of the American Dream. 

Dream, as in emphasis on slumber. The night before taking his citizenship exam, an exhausted Juan José (René Millán, nicely understated) tries to wrap his head around constitutional amendments and the logic of the Spanish-American War. Dozing off, he takes a picaresque spin through two centuries of “democracy,” bumbling into the famous (Jackie Robinson), the infamous (the Ku Klux Klan) and the obscure (see below). Consider “Night” as revisionist vaudevillian history of the United States from a (Howard) Zinn-master. Bemused, sly and sometimes moving, the evening affirms that we the people are indeed free to pursue happiness, despite metered parking in Culver City until 11 p.m. 

Fluidly directed by Jo Bonney, who shares a development credit with Culture Clash, “Night” is nimblest when it exposes the strange bedfellows of the American project. Shawn Sagady’s projections slide along upstage corrugated panels, leaving the stage a free-for-all where, for instance, Sacagawea (Stephanie Beatriz) is imagined as a brainy Ugly Betty, wearing a retainer and in need of a quick trip to REI to procure appropriate footwear.  (Her response to her face on the dollar coin? “I look fat.”) 

Juan also meets Viola Pettus (Kimberly Scott), an African American woman who even nursed KKK members during the virulent 1918 Spanish flu outbreak in West Texas. He hangs with Ralf Lazo (Daisuke Tsuji), a 16-year-old of Irish and Mexican descent who insisted on joining his Asian American classmates after they were interned at Manzanar Camp in 1942.  The chameleon cast shifts identities at top speed, and Montoya himself does Bob Dylan that would give Cate Blanchett pause. 

Yes, “Night” leans left, but it has about as much patience for political correctness as it has for Rush Limbaugh. So don’t look for the play’s take on the current immigration debate to shed new light on the issue; that would be missing the point. Montoya understands that history itself is theater, a series of showdowns in which competing narratives vie for supremacy. 

In the end, it’s America’s imperfection that propels an ambivalent Juan toward his new life. Our racists, radicals, imperialists and divine seekers show us who we are and who we would rather not be. And we all came here from somewhere else. The best quote of the night is from a source compiled around the time of the first Mayan hieroglyphics. See Exodus 22:21: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were a foreigner in Egypt.”

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-- Charlotte Stoudt

“American Night: The Ballad of Juan José”: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 1. $45. Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. 

Photo:  Daisuke Tsuji, left, and René Millán. Credit: Craig Schwartz

 

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