In fifth grade, my class was tasked with writing and producing our own play. What we came up with was a time-traveling sketch-comedy tale of aliens visiting Earth and bearing witness to important moments in history (shout-out to my fellow "Spaced Out" cast and crew!). As a skit-filled, laugh-packed, madcap trip through U.S. History, Los Altos Stage Company's "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose" reminds me — fondly — of that experience, albeit with a healthy helping of sharp, adult humor and insights about a few of the darker aspects of America's past. Think Mel Brooks and Monty Python-style humor mixed with Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States."
The show, written by Richard Montoya, centers on the titular Juan Jose (Carlos Diego Mendoza), a Mexican immigrant frantically preparing to take his U.S. citizenship examination.
Juan Jose was a police officer back in Mexico and fled Sinaloa after he refused to partake in drug-war corruption and became a target of a dangerous cartel. A green-card holder, his goal is to achieve full citizenship, then reunite with his beloved wife, Lydia (Alycia Adame, who also delivers a few lovely musical interludes), and his infant son, whom he has yet to meet.
With the test first thing in the morning, Juan Jose falls asleep and enters a feverish, rapid-fire dream that takes him through a variety of surreal encounters. He meets a cavalcade of figures (real and imagined) from throughout American history, played by the eight other cast members, billed only as Ensemble: Adame, Dan Cardenas, Nique Eagen, Ron Johnson, John Stephen King, Paul Lee, Dana Cordelia Morgan and Adrian Torres. Each takes on a variety of roles, from Sacajawea to Jackie Robinson.
Much of the content involves America's often-shabby treatment of its immigrant and non-white populations. On his adventure through time and space, the good-natured, optimistic Juan Jose learns about the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred a large portion of land from Mexico to the U.S., Australian-American labor leader Harry Bridges, the Kent State killings and much more.
He meets people acting bravely, heroes he has not learned about in his mainstream history books, such as Viola Pettus, an African-American nurse who treats children from all backgrounds — including kids whose parents are Mexican, Native-American or even Ku Klux Klan members — during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and Latino and Japanese-Americans creating community and representing true patriotism in WWII internment camps.
Voices and faces from different eras mix and mingle and Juan Jose is confronted by rampant racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric still present in society today. There are also some "Back to the Future" moments in which Juan Jose meets his own ancestors and movingly recognizes the threads tying their worlds to his own.
Though the themes are serious, the vast majority of the play is delivered in the broadest possible comic strokes, including groan-worthy puns, stereotypical accents and over-the-top caricatures, offered with knowing nods and parodic self-awareness.
The actors attack their lines full throttle, which is often successfully funny but, in some cases, feels like they're desperately hamming it up and unnecessarily screaming at each other and the audience (the painful Teddy Roosevelt and Sheriff Joe Arpaio scenes come to mind). After a while, the frantic pace of the 90-minute one-act does get a bit exhausting, but kudos to director Rodrigo Garcia for keeping it all flowing smoothly and quickly.
The jokes are sometimes quite clever, sometimes gleefully stupid, and with so much packed in, if you don't like a particular joke or scene, there's always another one ready in the wings. At some points, the Los Altos audience at the performance I attended seemed fairly baffled.
Do you find delight in the moment when ye olde explorers dub Juan Jose "Trader Joe?" How about a finale that includes a Neil Diamond sing-and-dance-along and a pair of baby dolls dressed, respectively, in KKK and Pancho Villa garb? If so, you're in the right place.
Ting-Na Wang's set design, lighting by Sean Kramer and sound by Stephen Davies is up to Los Altos Stage Company's usual high standards, setting locations and moods intensely.
While the show is most definitely an outrageous, irreverent comedy, Mendoza's sweet and smart performance in the lead role helps keep the play grounded and provides heart. I also love how his subconscious mind continually seeks out Adame's Lydia, always finding her in even the most unlikely places and characters. We root for Juan Jose to achieve his dreams, reunite with his family and, one hopes, take the lessons he's gleaned from his epic dream and help build a more decent United States.
"American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose" will very likely make you laugh, may make you sometimes groan and will definitely make you think. It's a wild, wacky, worthwhile trip through an American dreamland.
What: "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose."
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Through Feb. 17, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 3 p.m.
Info: Go to losaltosstage.org/.
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