Wild and crazy history lesson at Cal Shakes 

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  • Courtesy Photo
  • From left, Dena Martinez, Sharon Lockwood, Dan Hiatt and Sean San Jose appear in California Shakespeare Theater's "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José."

Sacagawea's there. So are Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, and several U.S. presidents.

California Shakespeare Theater has staged numerous history plays by its namesake over the years. But with "American Night: the Ballad of Juan José," it takes the audience on a fast ride through our home turf.

Richard Montoya's surreal comedy opened the company's 2013 season last weekend with a raucous, eagle-eyed romp through America's past — the good, the bad and the parts we'd just as soon forget.

On the eve of his citizenship exam, Juan José, a Mexican immigrant, pulls an all-nighter. Confused and exhausted, he falls into a reverie, only to awaken in the middle of the Mexican-American War. Suddenly, it's up to him to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe.

From there, he moves forward in time, stopping at key events.

There are improbable juxtapositions — a black cowboy, a Mexican revolutionary and a member of the Ku Klux Klan meet Viola Pettus, who ran a West Texas clinic during the 1918 influenza epidemic. And 20th-century labor leader Harry Bridges is confronted by today's tea party.

Montoya, a co-founder of The City's own legendary performance trio, Culture Clash, piles on topical references — to foodies, Nikes, Trader Joe's, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

But his insights into race and class are razor-sharp, and he revisits history for more than laughs. A World War II radio show reveals the shame in Japanese internment camps and murder victim Emmett Till makes a ghostly cameo to warn of future injustices.

Still, the show never loses its comic edge, and Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone stages it as a whirlwind of send-ups, quick takes and musical numbers. Unfolding on Erik Flatmo's set of rolling hills and corrugated tin walls ringed by barbed wire fences, it comes together like clockwork.

The cast, wearing Martin Schnellinger's knockout costumes, is ideal. Sean San Jose excels in the title role. Company stalwarts Dan Hiatt, Margo Hall and Sharon Lockwood are joined by Dena Martinez, Todd Nakagawa, Brian Rivera, Richard Ruiz and Tyee Tilghman in a dizzying array of parts.

Eventually Juan José ends up — where else? — on a game show. But not before he writes some history of his own. It may be too late to change the past, Montoya suggests. But the future looks promising.


American Night: The Ballad of Juan José

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes June 23

Tickets: $35 to $72

Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

About The Author

Georgia Rowe

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