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tells the story of immigrants in America through a crazed mix of skits, historical references, inspired parody and moments of pathos and insight.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.
The Road to Mecca. There's something about The Road to Mecca
that reminds me of the plays of August Wilson. It has the same rich sense of place and culture, the same emotional complexity and the same kind of humanism. Except that where the emotional complexity in Wilson's ten-play cycle comes through the interactions of several characters, here all the themes and contradictions reside in the bosoms of only three lonely, puzzled people. The story is based on the life of South African artist Helen Martins, one of those eccentric, compulsive art-makers who draw all their inspiration from private visions and have no connection to the regular art world. Martins filled her garden with cement and glass sculptures of religious figures, camels and wise men, all facing east — along with mermaids, sphinxes and owls. She was mocked and ostracized by the Calvinist Afrikaners of New Bethesda, a tiny town in the arid, inhospitable region called the Great Karoo where she lived, but after her death, in 1976, her home became a museum that helped revitalize the area. Fugard is best known for his anti-Apartheid plays, but although he's at pains to provide a sense of Helen Martins's milieu — and the defiant politics of her younger friend, Elsa Barlow — his focus here is more on personal dynamics, as well as the plight of a free spirit in a rigid society. There's some preachiness to the script, and a bit too much rapturous carrying-on about the wonders of art and the mysteries of light. Director Nagle Jackson has given this Creede Repertory production a lot of telling and meticulous touches, but while the acting is good enough to carry the play, it isn't quite good enough to make it shimmer. Presented by the Creede Repertory Theatre at the Black Box Theater at the Arvada Center, through November 6, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200. Reviewed October 27.
Slow Dance With a Hot Pickup. While
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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 wrote Agnes 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.