LA Review: 'American Night: The Ballad of Juan José'

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Photo Source: Craig Schwartz
Culture Clash, the veteran troupe of Chicano-American social satirists, is back with one of its most trenchantly funny works to date. The immigrant experience in America is the topic of this colorful and breezily entertaining romp, which offers a loopy mash-up of milestones in our nation’s history as imagined by the titular hero (René Millán), a Mexican ex-cop who nods off while cramming for his U.S. citizenship exam. Inhabiting Juan’s dreams is a zany parade of historical figures, ranging from Lewis and Clark to Bob Dylan to a gun-crazy President Theodore Roosevelt.

The goofy but often bitingly sardonic vaudevillian set pieces are enacted by a crackerjack ensemble cast under the spry direction of Jo Bonney, who developed the show in conjunction with Culture Clash writer-performer Richard Montoya and other troupe members. Clever and picturesque rear projections by Shawn Sagady and attractive sets by Neil Patel greatly enhance the fanciful ambience, as do ESosa’s ingenious costumes, which accelerate the camp level. Ken Roht’s hilarious and stylish choreography adds to the pleasures.

The historic episodes fittingly include the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which turned a vast amount of Mexican-inhabited land into U.S. territory. As expected from Culture Clash, ribald humor sometimes gives way to sobering reflections on horrific political injustices. Included here are a brief anecdote featuring black teenager Emmett Till, who was beaten to death in 1955 after flirting with a white woman, and a segment at the Manzanar Japanese internment camp, which existed in California during World War II. Such sequences are juxtaposed with funny but disturbingly resonant jabs at our self-serving political system, as in a riotously amusing segment about a governmental meeting at which Tea Party representatives argue about immigration issues. These satiric points raise the question of why Juan wishes to relocate to America. Nevertheless, rescuing his wife and infant child from the widespread violence and drug-cartel culture of his homeland remains his key motivation. His efforts lead to a joyous finale, with the ensemble singing Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.”

The cast—headed by the warm and winning Millán and two of Culture Clash’s founders, Montoya and the chameleonic Herbert Siguenza—is terrific. Stephanie Beatriz is smashing in several roles, including Juan’s wife and a nerdy, bespectacled Sacagawea (here pronounced “Saga-Chihuahua”), the Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition into the wilderness. Salutes are also due to the other fine players: Rodney Gardiner, David Kelly, Terri McMahon, Kimberly Scott, and Daisuke Tsuji.

Presented by Center Theatre Group and La Jolla Playhouse at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. March 11–April 1. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m. (213) 972-4400 or Casting consultants: Nicole Arbusto and Joy Dickson.