Much like they did with last summer's Spunk, CalShakes veered away from their standard repertoire of 20th Century classics and Shakespeare plays with the selection of Richard Montoya's American Night: The Ballad of Juan José as the opening production of this summer's season. It's a rollicking, satirical fever dream of a play that dramatizes a number of less-than-great moments in immigration history in the United States, from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant trying to pass a citizenship exam.
Directed by company artistic director Jonathan Moscone, CalShakes' American Night is a funny (and often goofy) piece of theater filled with Montoya's spit-fire, free associative wit, as well as a host of pointed barbs aimed at the American conservative's idea of freedom and the American spirit. From a camp in the Old West with an African-American nurse/midwife delivering the white-hooded baby of Ku Klux Klansman, to the nonsequitor Japanese game show vignette near the end of the show as our hero Juan José dreams his way through the questions of the exam, it's a broad comic romp that's rife with laughs, both uncomfortable and not. Amid the chaos, Montoya also manages to ask some pointed questions about immigration, and how welcoming the U.S. has ever been to "otherness." The script also has some poignant and sincere moments, given that at its heart, it is a story about a man trying to achieve a better life for his wife and child.
The ensemble cast in particular the versatile Margo Hall, and the great comedic talents of Richard Ruiz and Sharon Lockwood frequently elevates the cleverness of the script beyond its chaotic mashups of history. And once they hit their stride, the momentum of the show is infectious, and barely ever slows long enough to catch its breath. (Especially hilarious are Ruiz's few entrances in Mexican abuela drag, and virtually every character Lockwood plays.) In the lead role, Sean San Jose is a tireless straight man who keeps the show afloat for its hour and forty-five minutes.
The set by Erik Flatmo, trimmed in razor wire that doubles as a lighting effect, deserves special praise too for its flexibility and the humor of several setpieces.
We won't spoil the finale, but suffice it to say things end on a bright, tongue-in-cheek patriotic note that leaves everyone smiling. All told, American Night makes for an edgy and fun start to the summer in Orinda.
CalShakes performs Tuesday through Saturday nights, with one Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. The theater is accessible via Highway 24 in Orinda, or by shuttle bus from Orinda BART. As always, you're encouraged to bring a picnic and have it in the grove before the performance. Get tickets here.