Speak softly and carry a big shtick.
That's the mantra of "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose," an outrageous fantasia on U.S. history that leaves no hot button unpushed.
California Shakespeare Theater launches its summer with a bang with this cheeky mashup of history, politics and satire. Developed by the Latino theater collective Culture Clash and written by Richard Montoya, "American Night" rewrites the history books with a vengeance. The punchline is the thing in this season opener.
Framed against a set of barbed wire, rusted steel and graffiti (design by Erik Flatmo), the epic narrative of the immigrant's journey gets juxtaposed with over-the-top pop culture references and cheesy musical interludes (the Neil Diamond homage is unforgettable). If the take-no-prisoners satire doesn't catch fire as often as it should, "American Night" is still a surreal road trip through the American experience.
Savvily directed by Jonathan Moscone, this wild romp through time and space spins around the underdog Juan Jose (Sean San Jose), a Mexican immigrant cramming for his citizenship test. He passes out with his head on a textbook, his imagination ablaze with everyone from Sacagawea (Dena Martinez) and Harry Bridges (Dan Hiatt) to Teddy Roosevelt (Richard Ruiz), just a few of the historical figures who promptly take center stage in this fast-paced farce.
Montoya ("The River," "Water & Power"), working in the Culture Clash style, leaves no stereotype unskewered in a delightfully politically incorrect odyssey through the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the journey of Lewis (Hiatt) and Clark (Sharon Lockwood) and the heroism of Jackie Robinson (Tyee Tilghman).
But by far the most interesting characters here are the unsung heroes, such as the black nurse Viola Pettus (Margo Hall) who treats Klansman as well as Mexican immigrants during the influenza epidemic in 1918 and the Latino teenager Ralph Lazo (Martinez) who insists on being interned with his Japanese-American classmates at Manzanar.
Giving voice to these forgotten stories gives the play a powerful fearlessness in addition to its vaudeville sensibility.
Yet for all its silliness and slapstick, the always-thoughtful San Jose lends such sincerity to the central role that the production is often surprisingly moving. Indeed that potent political subtext makes up for what the production lacks in terms of comic propulsion. Despite some fiercely funny moments, this lampoon rarely approaches the levels of giddy hilarity it reaches for.
Make no mistake, there are some priceless spoofs. Brian Rivera rivets as a Mexican revolutionary, Bob Dylan and a giant bear. Ruiz is a giggle magnet as a demented sumo wrestler, Teddy Roosevelt and Neil Diamond. The Vanilla Ice interlude is funnier than it has any right to be.
Still, overall the sketch comedy doesn't flow into the poignant moments as easily as it should, and the pace often sags when it should be fast and furious. The Asian game show segment, while amusing enough on its own terms, seems to bog the production down when it should be careening toward its climax. But those quibbles may be beside the point.
What's truly radical about "American Night" is that it tries to make us think as hard as we laugh.
Written by Richard Montoya
Through: June 23
Where: California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda
running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $35-$72, 510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org