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tells the story of immigrants in America through a crazed mix of skits, historical references, inspired parody and moments of pathos and insight.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.
Collapse. Comedy doesn't usually get the respect accorded tragedy, but if you analyze the way that playwright Allison Moore has put together Collapse — the varying rhythms of the dialogue (everything from a touching monologue to a hyper-rapid patch of stichomythia); the surprises that seem inevitable once they've occurred; the easiness with which she moves from laugh-out-loud funny to heartfelt while doing both justice; and, above all, the way the play rollicks along for ninety swift minutes, keeping you completely engaged and laughing the whole time — you realize that this stuff is just as hard to write as all those heavy, violent and portentous critical darlings. Perhaps harder. Moore built her plot around the tragic collapse of the 1-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minnesota in 2007, which killed thirteen people and injured 145. It's a mark of her skill that she can create humor from this tragedy and its aftermath without in any way diminishing the event's seriousness and consequence. While there are familiar elements — a troubled marriage, a wacky visiting sister whose presence upends a fragile household, a leering horndog, a mysterious package that needs to be delivered to a man called Bulldog — they're handled with complete originality. David, the male half of the couple, was driving on the bridge when it collapsed, and hasn't recovered. Unable to go to work, he hangs around the house in pajamas and sweatshirt. His wife, Hannah, is at her wits' end trying to deal with him, a recent miscarriage and another kind of collapse — that of the economy, as the law firm where she works plans to downsize. Enter sister Susan, broke and homeless. The vitality of the evening — and it is very alive — rests on two wonderfully eccentric performances: Clad in vivid rusts and oranges that perfectly accentuate her red hair and lively persona, Jessica Austgen makes Susan as narcissistic as she is disarming; Michael Morgan's Ted is creepy and pathetic, but also seductive in an oddly backhanded way.
Collapsereceived good reviews in Berkeley earlier this year and goes on to Dallas's Kitchen Dog Theater next. Let's hope this is just the beginning of its on-stage life. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 10, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 10.