“American Night,” the latest offering from semi-improvisational provocateurs Culture Clash, is subtitled “The Ballad of Juan Jose,” and it’s the same old song. Picaresque journey through 200 years of national history makes all the points about progressivist nobility and right-wing prejudice you anticipate upon entering the Kirk Douglas Theater. Despite a lengthy development process at the Oregon Shakespeare Fest and La Jolla Playhouse, the show’s satirical thrusts cut no deeper than a junior-high civics class where Howard Zinn is the only name on the reading list.
A West Coast mainstay since 1984, Clash scores strongest whenever it hits on a fundamental ambivalence around which it can wrap our minds. “Chavez Ravine” explored the dire human costs of urban development, “Water & Power” the moral compromises attendant on being able to effect positive political change.
But Clash’s wonderful anger has dribbled away as “American Night” traffics in platitudes. Gee, immigrants have been treated badly, but they’ve contributed to our society nevertheless; and can’t we all just get along?
A flavorful opening has our hero, Juan Jose (Rene Millan), singing a melancholy but hopeful ballad as he trudges across the desert into his new land: “I hope you don’t see me as a man who crossed the line. I hope you only see a man.”
But how can we? He’s not a man but a symbol, just a decent, principled fellow working for a better life for idealized wife (Stephanie Beatriz) and child. Dreaming about America as he snoozes during a study session for his citizenship exam, he could be Alice down the rabbit hole, a dull, passive observer of the grotesque and quaint.
Early on he encounters our most notorious imperialist president. “Speak softly and carry a big shtick!” cries an ebullient Teddy Roosevelt (Herbert Siguenza) with some irony, since carrying a big shtick is predominantly what the cast proceeds to do, though helmer Jo Bonney doesn’t have folks speak softly often enough.
Sensitively imagined moments — like Kimberly Scott’s frontier medico treating the afflicted of all races and creeds — are far outnumbered by stale potshots at Mormons, “teabaggers” (Tea Partyers, of course) and fatcats. And isn’t it time to call a moratorium on shark gags involving John Williams’ “Jaws” theme? It’s been 37 years already.
Scott and Siguenza bring flavor to the work, and Beatriz possesses an uncanny ability to disappear within a range of vivid personalities. But Juan Jose himself never comes alive, Millan stuck in twin modes of discombobulation and anguish.