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American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose

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It’s a puzzle why Richard Montoya’s zany, irreverent and ultimately hopeful play is not titled “American Knight: The Ballad of Juan Jose,” for it is a quest tale, albeit a fantastical one similar to that of Don Quixote. 

Developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney, and appearing on La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre stage, the mischievous production focuses on the hero’s mission to become a United States citizen. Like Quixote’s search for chivalrous adventure, “The Ballad” winds through land and time as Juan Jose comes at times closer, at others farther away from achieving his dream.
Unlike Quixote’s fable, however, Juan Jose’s story is largely an unconscious meandering conveyed in what can only be called a marathon dream. Originally commissioned as part of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the drama of Juan Jose’s search moves through our country’s past. It is a history told through myth and mayhem, featuring the brave, the plucky, the bold, and the cowardly, as well as the pathetic, the craven and the hilarious.
Except for a flashback scene revealing his motivation and his former occupation as a Mexican police officer, Juan Jose’s adventurous journey begins when he falls asleep studying for his citizenship exam. Well, that is a bit after he accepts encouragement and the gift of The Book of Mormon from two erstwhile and nerdy members of the Latter Day Saints. But before that there is an opening scene depicting a very long and lonely trek across deserts, mountains, valleys and a border, (wonderfully depicted in Shawn Sagady’s landscape projections). Never mind the unique sequencing, just a bit jolting at the beginning. Enjoy bouncing along this farcical path. Like Quixote’s reality, Juan’s is unique.
The nighttime narrative begins with the conflict over the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, especially significant to Mexican people who found themselves on the wrong side of the new border. (Wrong side being a matter of circumstance and diverse opinion.) From then on, U.S. history, as told by the skillful members of the fearless and edgy Culture Club ensemble excellently led by Rene Millan as Juan Jose, unfolds like a stuffed bag of laundry, some of it odiferous, some of it sweet, but none of it neatly creased.
Credit Jo Bonney’s agile direction, Neil Patel’s stark sets, and Esosa’s vivid and versatile costumes, as well as the illogical and weird stuff that dreams are made of. As a story-telling device, the slumbering hallucination knows no bounds and is perfectly adaptable and amenable to limitless quirks of fate and character. Juan Jose’s wife (astutely and sweetly played by Stephanie Beatriz) keeps appearing in odd guises. Sacajawea wears orthodontic headgear; Teddy Roosevelt shoots at elephants in the Great Plains; Mrs. Finney, a well-meaning do-gooder, (Terri McMahon) flirts with a Japanese singing idol (Daisuke Tsuji) on Radio Manzanar; a blonde and shrill Tea Partier argues with Harry Bridges (an energetic and winning David Kelly) and an unemployed I.T. guy at a town hall meeting. Bob Dylan sings at Woodstock (then confesses he was not really there).It is as if Howard Zinn’s history meets Saturday Night Live.
Oh, and add a dose of Oprah’s most engaging humanitarians, such as the African-American nurse, Viola Pettus, (a determined and stalwart Kimberly Scott) and her understanding husband Ben (appealingly played by Rodney Gardiner) who treat victims of the 1918 flu epidemic, including the infant son of a sheet-wearing judge, in a tent outside the town controlled by the KKK. (There were gasps from the opening night audience at the N-word, so we, like Juan Jose, have come some distance. Well, some of us have. The Arizona mean man, Sheriff Joe Arpaio (a valiant Herbert Siguenza, who also plays Neil Diamante in the closing number) travels a different road, at least in this production.
Like any worthwhile quest, Juan Jose’s has its detractors. At times, he wants to quit, crying, “I don’t like this dream anymore!” The most poignant dissuaders come from his family. His wife Lydia begs him to come home; his father, Juan Jose the First (a genuine Richard Montoya) asks plaintively, “Why do you want to pledge allegiance to a land that does not want you?”
Juan Jose’s answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. And it is not a windmill. As the final lively musical number declares, he’s coming to America!

“American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose” plays through February 26 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

Performances at: 7:30 p.m. Tues-Weds; 8:00 p.m. Thurs-Sat: 7:00 p.m. Sun.
Matinees Sat-Sun at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets are $38-74, with some discounts available.
Reservations online at www.lajollaplayhouse.org or by phone (858) 550-1010

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.