Play offers offbeat, surreal take on our country’s past
‘American Night’ kicks off OSF’s history cycle of plays with rollicking, insightful satire and occasional pathos
By Bill Varble
for the Mail Tribune
A colored cowboy, a Mexican revolutionary and a Ku Klux Klansman all walk into a saloon …
The premise is put forth by Ben Pettus (Rodney Gardiner), a black cowboy in “American Night: The Ballad of Juan JosĂ©,” which had its world premiere Saturday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s New Theatre.
There’s no punch line, but the setup, with its hint of meta-theater, breaks the tension between three real (in the play) men who fit those descriptions.
It is 1918, and the three are facing off outside El Paso, Texas, where Ben’s wife, Viola Pettus (Kimberly Scott), is selflessly treating victims of the influenza epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people.
It is fitting that she do this, as it jibes with the larger vision of the play, which seems to have been inspired by a belief that often in American history, in the middle of great darkness, somebody steps up to do great good.
The credits say Richard Montoya and Culture Clash wrote the thing, but I don’t believe it.
It plays as if written by the Firesign Theatre and directed by the Marx Brothers, starring Monty Python.
“American Night” is a boisterous, rollicking, surreal, post-modern, postracial (warning: some descriptions may contain irony) journey into American history â and by extension the heart of one man’s American Dream.
Viewing is known to cause unrestrained laughter â and maybe a tear.
Juan JosĂ©’s (RenĂ© MillĂĄn) journey will take him over mountains and deserts, into wars and plagues, from rock festivals to shlock radio shows to internment camps. He will encounter Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea, a Shakespeare-quoting soldier, a bear, Malcolm X, NAFTA, Mormons, Harry Bridges, Bob Dylan, a tea bag lady, Fidel Castro and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
There will be social commentary, some of it caustic, all of it comic, most of it very funny indeed.
The seed of “American Night” seems to have been “The Citizen’s Almanac,” a sort of Civics 101 booklet published by the government for immigrants trying to become American citizens. Juan JosĂ© left Mexico, where he was headed for trouble with drug lords and crooked cops, hoping to bring his wife, Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), and the couple’s baby later.
In the U.S., using flash cards to cram for his citizenship exam, he falls asleep and dreams the play. The narrative has the fractured, disjointed structure of dreams, with one episode segueing into the next outside the normal constraints of rationality or plot.
Juan JosĂ© finds himself in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and wants to stop the killing, but the treaty he’s asked to sign will cede a good chunk of North America to the United States at the expense of Mexico, not incidentally making him into an outlaw. What to do?
“Hath not a Mexican eyes?” cries a Mexican soldier, quoting Shylock.
Sacajawea is a 15-year-old with an attitude. T.R. never sees an animal he doesn’t shoot at. A Klansman with nowhere else to turn brings his baby to black Viola â and the infant has a tiny, little, pointy Klan hood.
Flash forward a bit and it’s a world in which America is ever more Mexican, and Mexico is ever more American, and Nike sneakers can rain from the skies. All this is painted by Montoya and director Jo Bonney in very broad strokes indeed. Scenic designer Neil Patel’s thrust stage fills the entire playing space, with Shawn Sagady’s projections filling in and/or commenting on much of the action: landscapes, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese-Americans, the 1969 Woodstock festival, vintage postcards, the inevitable moving train, the Caribbean.
For a world of NAFTA there are giant projections of industrial gears and cogs filling the back of the stage like that famous scene in Chaplin’s “Modern Times.”
Much of the story involves stereotypes, with Culture Clash coming down on the side of the argument that says when we laugh at them they are undercut and lose power.
And laugh we do. Mostly. You can’t tell this story without ugly. There is a sign, of a sort once common, that says “No dogs, negroes, Mexicans.” But in the end the satire is the big-hearted, inclusive, Horation sort.
There is Woody Guthrie claiming this land is his land, and ours, and Harry Bridges organizing workers against the bosses, and a stoner Boy Dylan copping song lyrics to inject into loopy dialogue.
The surreal anarchy of the climax reminded me of “Duck Soup,” but Juan JosĂ© is no Rufus T. Firefly. MillĂĄn plays him, brilliantly, as a straight man with a good heart in the midst of comic chaos, as befits what is essentially a zany but profound civics lesson.
“American Night” lasts but 90 minutes, and tickets should be impossible. Give it stars all the way off the page. And note that it debuted exactly 75 years after the first-ever OSF plays. It is the first of Bill Rauch’s “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” 37 commissioned plays that will tell America’s story. It is a rousing, heartfelt beginning.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.