American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose. Written by Richard Montoya, of the San Francisco performance group Culture Clash, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose
tells the story of immigrants in America through a crazed mix of skits, historical references, inspired parody and moments of pathos and insight. But the play isn't just an animated history lesson; it's a jolt, a tear in the fabric, in itself an embodiment of the richness and vitality of the immigrant effect. As the play opens, Juan Jose is studying for his citizenship test, having been obliged to leave his wife and infant son in Mexico. Dazed from lack of sleep, he's also trying to sort through the help he's receiving from several odd quarters — particularly from a pair of Mormons who want him eventually to help spread the word about their wacky and peculiarly American religion to his dark-skinned brethren. Juan turns back to his studies, and historical events begin unfolding in a phantasmagoric tapestry. He witnesses the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, under which huge swaths of Mexico's land were lost to the United States. He runs into all kinds of historical figures: Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. "This land is your land, this land is my land," sings Woody Guthrie. We see the evil and stupidity of racism, but it's depicted with irrepressible high spirits. Acts of conscience and simple human decency are celebrated, too. "I will write you into the history books," Juan Jose tells Viola Pettus, a black nurse from Texas who cared for the victims of the 1918 Spanish flu whether they were African-American or members of the Klan, You may not catch every reference, but it doesn't really matter, because the show unfurls with such joyous, driving energy, and the acting is so crazy good. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 20, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 20.
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Parlour Song. At the beginning of Parlour Song, demolitions expert Ned is showing videos of his work to his neighbor, Dale, owner of a car wash. Dale is polite but uninterested; he's seen them many times before, though Ned seems to have forgotten showing them to him. But for the audience, the videos are fascinating: the balance between control and destruction, the way a building leans almost reluctantly into itself, slowly hollowing before exploding in a slow, beautiful, meditative ballet. This is also a fitting representation of what is happening within Ned's marriage to restless, indifferent Joy, and, in fact, to his entire life. Objects are disappearing from Joy and Ned's house, and Ned is trying to do everything he can think of to keep his wife. He enlists the help of Dale in an effort to lose weight. In one of the evening's funniest scenes, he listens to a sex-advice tape, learning how to deploy his tongue during oral sex. In most disintegrating-in-suburbia fiction, the protagonists dull their pain with sleeping pills and anti-depressants. Ned can't do that: His demolition contract requires that he never take drugs. So when Joy discovers pills, they turn out to be — pathetically — the Rogaine he's purchased to save his hair. There's a persistent undertone of menace that makes comparisons to Pinter inevitable, and a persistent sense of deracination, instability, change and the loss and deterioration caused by time's passing. Although this production is oddly uninvolving, it's still worth seeing because Butterworth's dialogue is so fiercely funny, and because it stars three of the best actors in the area. Presented by Paragon Theatre through October 29, 1387 South Santa Fe Drive, 303-914-6458, www.paragontheatre.org. Reviewed October 6.
Slow Dance With a Hot Pickup. While
Slow Dance With a Hot Pickupisn't a rabblerouser, it's an engrossing show about real people in desperate circumstances, and it has its heart in the right place. A completely original work by John Pielmeier, who wroteAgnes of God, and composer Matty Selman, this Boulder's Dinner Theatre production is being presented as a workshop in preparation for a national tour, so it's still fluid. It's also a big risk for BDT, whose clientele tends to expect old chestnuts and family-friendly outings. The plot involves eight people competing in a radio contest: There's a shiny new truck in the middle of a car lot, and the contestant who can keep a hand on it the longest will win it. Like the wretched dancers in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, these people hang on for days, becoming more tired and quarrelsome by the hour — and also more concerned about each other and more empathetic. The contestants include a Vietnam vet; an Asian woman who wears a cowboy hat, wants to be a country singer and is secretive about her country of origin; an out-of-work ex-con; a tough-talking, hard-praying female auto mechanic; a young girl with a secret; a rather innocent teenage guy; a good-natured waitress; and a middle-aged man worn out with caring for his illness-ridden ex-wife. The off-stage voice of a sadistic radio announcer issues directives and makes arbitrary judgments. Twining together eight narratives isn't easy, and the script could use shaping; the music ranges from okay to excellent. The cast in this straightforward production is full of talent — both vocal and thespian — and the members rise brilliantly to the challenge of making ordinary people riveting. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through November 5, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed October 20.
To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is an institution, a must for every high school curriculum, the inspiration for a well-loved film starring Gregory Peck and scripted by Horton Foote, the starting point for discussions of race ever since the novel first appeared in 1960. Unfortunately, Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation, like so many novel-to-play enterprises, is a plodding, static affair. While the book's characters are brought to life by Lee's vivid, poetic description, the characters onstage are flat — and it's hard to believe that anyone, anywhere, ever really spoke as they do. The story is narrated by an adult version of Finch's adoring daughter, Scout. As six-year-old Scout and her brother, Jem, play with an eccentric visiting boy called Dill, speculate on a reclusive neighbor, and struggle to fathom their father's work and the mysteries of the grown-up world, the narrator hovers benignly. It's charming at first, less so as the evening progresses. The second act, in which Finch defends Tom Robinson, the alleged rapist, is more involving, though the characters remain unconvincing. Finch is consistently noble, dispassionate and courteous; Tom humble, polite and subdued. If the man is terrified — he's barely escaped a lynching, after all — he doesn't show it. Like Tom, most of the black characters are primarily window dressing. The Finches' maid, Calpurnia, is strict but loving. During the trial, a group of black townspeople sit in the balcony like a Greek chorus — except they don't even get to comment. Insightful direction could perhaps rescue the play, but Sabin Epstein's production is as straightforward and unimaginative as a preachy after-school special. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 30, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 13.