Cal Shakes' American Night asks, "Whose America?" and also, "Whose theater?"
In the past few years, California Shakespeare Theater, under the direction of Jonathan Moscone, has been moving toward being as much about California as it is about Shakespeare. No more does the thirty-nine-year-old company, which is housed in an amphitheater in the Berkeley hills, devote its seasons to four Shakespeare productions (or three, with a Shaw thrown in). Its recent programming reflects a new mission: to explore the cultural and artistic diversity of the Golden State.
While the company had been creating new work as early as 2003 with the founding of its New Works/New Communities program, it wasn’t until 2010, with Octavio Solis’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, that a world premiere made it to the mainstage. Since then, seasons have been increasingly innovative, and this year that tradition continues with American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, which chronicles the cram session-induced dreams of Juan (Sean San José), a Mexican immigrant on the eve of his American citizenship test. The play was written by Richard Montoya and developed by Jo Bonney and Culture Clash, which Montoya cofounded. Created in 1984, the Chicano-inflected Culture Clash specializes in broad physical comedy and satire; a perennial focus of its criticism is the way Anglo-Americans stereotype or marginalize other groups, but members also poke fun at themselves and their own culture.
Many theaters want their audiences to be less old and less white in order to both have a more sustainable source of ticket buyers and to better reflect their communities.
Looking around at the audience at any given Cal Shakes performance, you can see why the company is expanding its offerings. Many theaters want their audiences to be less old and less white in order to both have a more sustainable source of ticket buyers and to better reflect their communities. But with Cal Shakes, defining community isn’t easy. The company is near “Berserkely,” famous for its diversity and progressivism, but “near” is a relative term. Suburban Orinda, where the theater is actually located, was 82.4% white in 2010; it’s most famous for its leaf blower wars.
Of course, it’s wrong to think of a theater’s community as limited only to its town, but Cal Shakes doesn’t exactly get a lot of foot traffic. It’s located on a highway, and if you don’t have a car, you have to take a train and a bus to get there. And once you arrive, there are other, subtler signs that this is a theater for elites only. Groups with five-star picnics take all the picnic tables, which can actually be reserved if you are of a certain subscriber status, more than an hour before performance. Certain theater seats have blankets waiting on them, while everyone else must pay to rent them. And at the lengthy section on corporate sponsorship during the curtain speech, everyone knows just when to shout, in unison, “Peet’s Coffee & Tea!” along with the speaker. In all these ways, factors both intrinsic to Cal Shakes’s location and perpetuated by its culture contradict the company’s rhetoric about audience engagement. In reality, it’s the kind of theater where, if there’s an interactive exhibit outside the theater (as there is for American Night), the company must instruct audiences to interact with it; at a recent performance, the employees tasked with this unenviable chore looked uncannily similar to bright t-shirt-wearing, clipboard-wielding Greenpeace employees.
This is all to say that American Night is not the most obvious choice for Cal Shakes. The show does feature a few moments of biting satire that almost anyone could enjoy, as in a scene about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when President James K. Polk (Dan Hiatt) says, “Weep not, large Mexican gentlewoman,” to a character in a chintzy indigenous costume (Richard Ruiz, spectacular in drag) idly pushing a floor waxing machine about the stage. But as the show progresses, the sight gags become more frenetic and desperate, thinly justified by the play’s “anything can happen” dream structure. It’s Telemundo on steroids for an audience on Metamucil.
Montoya’s point here is that the history one must absorb and recite to become a citizen is precisely the history that makes immigrants second-class citizens in the first place—an important if well-established idea, but one that Montoya asserts too didactically. As Juan progresses through different scenes in American history—from Lewis and Clark to a Texas border town in the early 1900s to a WWII internment camp all the way up to the present, characters explain who they are in stand-and-deliver format, with lines practically lifted from the dramaturgy section of the program. That history lesson is the extent of the story. And Moscone, who directs, often fails to clarify tone; it’s inconsistently dreamlike and inconsistently comedic. Staging, too, baffles. Toward the end of the play, at a contemporary town hall meeting, characters screaming into microphones swarm the stage and mill about like an unchoreographed crowd; they have no clear physical relationship to their setting or to each other. Here and in many other parts of the play, it’s as if Montoya thinks that a few good jokes and a criticism of officially sanctioned history obviate the need for story or clarity.
In mounting American Night, the theater is rightly paying attention to broader societal trends and trying to be a part of them.
But this is not to doom all of Cal Shakes’s efforts at diversification. In mounting American Night, the theater is rightly paying attention to broader societal trends and trying to be a part of them. And it’s important to remember that at large, well-established theaters the pace of change can be glacial. It can take five years of doing talkbacks, for example, before audiences start coming to them in significant numbers. Going forward, Cal Shakes, like all theaters, has a huge question to think about: As your audience changes, to what extent do you cater to longtime supporters and to what extent do you cater to new ones? And does what you say match what you do? If you try to please everybody, you might end up with mush.