California Shakespeare Theater's season opener, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, is completely bonkers. Madcap and relentlessly silly, Richard Montoya's funhouse ride through American history is also sobering, pointing out the myriad ways ethnic minorities have been screwed over in this country.
A founding member of Culture Clash, the Latino comedy trio that started in San Francisco's Mission District and is now based in Los Angeles, Montoya wrote American Night for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where it premiered in 2010. It was the first play in OSF's American Revolutions initiative, a series of 37 plays on turning points in American history commissioned over a 10-year period. The current production is directed by Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, who happened to be both the director and main character of the second play in that series, Ghost Light, which was about grappling with the memory of his father, the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone. (Making things even more convoluted, one of the later shows in Cal Shakes' current season, Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, is helmed by Christopher Liam Moore, the guy who played Jonathan Moscone in Ghost Light, directing the sort of play that Moscone specializes in.) It's all connected in bizarrely complicated ways.
The connections keep coming fast and furious in American Night, too. Dozing off while cramming for his U.S. citizenship exam, Mexican immigrant Juan Jose is propelled into a breakneck satirical fantasia through American history. He's there to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War and signing away an immense chunk of land stretching from Texas to California. He meets explorers Lewis and Clark (amusingly puffed-up Dan Hiatt and Sharon Lockwood) and their Shoshone guide Sacagawea (Dena Martinez as a gawkish teenager with a retainer). There's a terrific scene in the camp of heroic African-American nurse Viola Pettus (a formidable Margo Hall) during the 1918 flu pandemic, leading to an amusing and curiously touching fireside encounter between a Klansman (Hiatt), a Mexican revolutionary (Brian Rivera) and Viola's husband, a black cowboy (Tyee Tilghman), while Pettus tends to ailing babies in white hoods and sombreros.