American Night — The Ballad of Juan José
American Night is a nightmare that turns into a hopeful dream of the future. Mostly, though, it's a bunch of jokes to lift our restless spirits in an increasing polarized society. Nothing wrong with that. Laugh. It's good for the country.
Juan José (René Millán), a legal alien, is studying to gain U.S. citizenship. Both in his waking moments and in the unsettled dream, which takes up most of this intermissionless 100-minute historical farce, Juan is beset by bigots, big-mouths, barbarians and even bears. He hears takes on America which he doesn't want to hear, and clarifies his own views with an earnest rethinking of what might have happened during pivotal points in U.S. relations with Mexico, the Native American nations, flower children and numerous others.
These are many easy laughs — cheap, even — to be had at the expense of bureaucrats, hypocritical politicians, racists, sexists, traditionalists and "settlers" of places that have already been settled by others. At one point a bear, shot in the groin, yelps "Ow! Right in the Mitt Romneys!" Many of the routines in the fractured revue of American history are punctuated with gunfire, bloodshed and wacky dancing.
But there's also a lot of nuance: a gentle exchange with Emmett Till, a heroic entrance for Jackie Robinson, jokey references to the Smiths and Jerry Lewis. American Night uses psychotic shtick and gross giggles to uncover basic truths about how human beings get along, or how they decide not to. There are several wonderful set-pieces in which stubborn folks stick to their guns (sometimes literally), shouting their opinions until those predispositions start seeming ridiculous.
These comedy sketches don't really have endings. They just fade into the mists as the next period of history emerges to be skewered. Thank goodness for that citizenship-exam framework, then. It allows for a game-show extravaganza of an ending. The loose structure also lets playwright Montoya (who's a big part of the eight-person supporting ensemble here, playing everyone from Juan's dad to Christ himself) freely insert fresh topical one-liners about the impending presidential election, Obamacare and other hot topics.
The writing is loose and riotous, but the staging — by Shana Cooper, who directed a youthful Romeo and Juliet for the Rep a few seasons ago — is high-tech, calculated and in several places tightly choreographed. The big jokes are illuminated with projections, spotlights, podiums, props and pointing fingers. There's an obviousness and overpreparedness that kills the spontaneity. On the other hand, this is a bold and bright, colorful and multi-cultural clash of big laughs and big ideas. If it can't win you over with wit, it bowls you over with bravado.
The Yale Rep has been this way before. For starters, the theater hosted the Culture Clash troupe, of which playwright Richard Montoya is a founding member, back in 2003. (One of Montoya's Culture Clash cohorts, Herbert Siguenza, appeared in West Coast productions of American Night earlier this year; Siguenza's roles are now taken by Richard Ruiz, a boisterous presence at the Rep last year in The Winter's Tale). But American Night also has a lot in common with such revisionist history comedies as Amy Freed's Safe in Hell (about the Salem witch trials) and even Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play (which toyed with various images of Abraham Lincoln). Mark Rucker and James Magruder's reimagining of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid back in 1999 tore into health care concerns with the same urgency that American Night does. And like the Rep's brassy, disco-paced adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's The King Stag in 2004, American Night ain't over until a large person in a sequined outfit sings. In this case, it's a Neil Diamond impersonator.
American Night is a skewed, scary dream that is going to get you up to vote.