If dreams were this funny, anesthetics would be the most demanded product of our day. American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose opened last Friday at Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse to a packed house and generally entertained audience. Cyrano's describes the Richard Montoya play as "provocative" and "irreverent." It certainly is irreverent, but no one is likely to be provoked unless they are staunchly Republican or without a sense of humor, both unlikely groups for Cyrano's.
Juan Jose (played by Alonso Paredes) is a young Mexican studying to pass his U.S. citizenship exam. Studying late into the night, he falls asleep and dreams of the events and historical figures he read about, which he quickly finds are much more wild when animated.
The plot really starts moving when Juan dreams that he is in 1848, and in a position to sign (or not sign) the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave America most of the southwest and then some. Told that the treaty will make people in the territory instant U.S. citizens-his personal craving-Juan signs it. The problem is that now, for the next century and beyond, any other Mexican found in those territories will be classified as an alien. Jose quickly finds this out as he's transported to 21st century Arizona, where two marvelously paranoid border patrol officers (Vivian Melde and Erick Robertson) interrogate him, exercising extraordinary creativity in charging him for domestic dispute, terrorism, being "highly agitated," and more.
The number of characters that follow, as well as their behavior, is dizzying. But all this is expected of a dream. The cast, directed by Richard Benavides, successfully handles the seemingly endless characters, costume changes, and distinct accents.
All of the characters are stereotypes, but each is an "adorable stereotype," as one character calls the other. Juan Jose himself is a stereotype, a good young Mexican man trying to make it to America to find a better life for himself and his pregnant wife, who stays in Mexico. It is like a telenovela when the pregnant wife appears in Jose's dream, rubbing her bell, triggering in Juan a passionate reaction.
Despite the entirely two-dimensional characters, the way these stereotypes act comes off as charming, and often hilarious. The spirited performance of the entire cast, the cartoonish historical figures, the mixture of historical dialect with contemporary slang-all makes the play worth seeing.
David Haynes was a particular delight to watch. First appearing as a patronizing Elder Clark, Haynes accentuates his belly to biblical proportions. But with a costume change he appears humble and helpful (and rather slim) as Harry Bridges. The costumes were spot-on, often producing laughter before the character, be it the Pope or a sumo wrestler, flashed onto the stage. The characters of Joan Baez and Jackie Robinson make notable appearances. Baez, getting high at Woodstock, offers several inaccurate prophecies, such as "Art school is the new law school. "
Though it's based on the immigration experience faced by Mexicans, American Night frequently references other groups who share their experiences. This includes a scene with "Johnny and the Japs," and a few words by Jackie Robinson, which are surprisingly moving, when he distinguishes between a part of America (racists) and the whole of America (the principle of equality).
Juan's great-grandfather appears toward the end, giving the play a poetic unity. Also named Juan Jose, his appearance weaves the history of the last couple centuries together, showing how the same battles and injustices are repeating. Though it can't be taken too seriously-Juan Jose senior does command the younger Juan, "bring me a Lady Gaga T-shirt" from America.
The only time I thought the play may have crossed the line (the line being provocation without humor) was when Jackie Robinson encouraged Jose to hand a baseball to Emmett Till. Other than the fact they lived in the same time period, I didn't see the humor or connection in referencing a 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered for being black. It served no purpose but to expand a roll call of historical figures.
The play is indeed irreverent, but not exactly witty. The script shows these stereotypes clearly, but the only comment it makes is the rather obvious one that they are ridiculous. Nonetheless, to see them in action is hilarious.
I'll let you decide if the conclusion was lackluster.
In the end, assuming you won't quibble over wit or vote for Romney, few plays can pack so many laughs into every minute.