Monday, May 4, 2015

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José—Milagro—SE Portland

“Home is Where the Heart is”

This comedy-drama is written by Richard Montoya and directed by Elizabeth Huffman.  It is playing at their space, 525 SE Stark St., through May 23rd.  (It is only street parking, so plan your time accordingly.)  For more information, go to their site at www.milagro.org or call 503-236-7253.

This is a strange and wonderful piece, taking us on a journey through our history, via an Everyman, Juan José (Ozvaldo Gonzalez), an immigrant wanting to become an American citizen.  But, as mentioned in the story, are wanting and needing the same thing.  And so he must discover, through a time machine called dreams, our history’s treatment of “aliens,” specifically those of a different color.  And, although a painful history, it is told with humor.

Why such an approach?  Mel Brooks (The Producers) and Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator) may have expressed it best, when dealing with the issues of the Nazis.  The best weapon against tyranny or injustice is humor.  If you laugh at a person or organization that deals in this, you have taken all the wind out of their sails.  Their pursuits and actions then will seem petty.  Plus, fighting negativity with negativity is a no-win situation.

The story is told with nine actors playing a variety of roles, as well as a voice over by Adrienne Flagg, and they are quite amazing.  At the beginning, Juan has been befriended by some Mormons (Orion Bradshaw and Heath Hyun Houghton) to give him shelter, while he studies for his test to become an American citizen.  He has left his wife (Michelle Escobar) and his child in Mexico until he can establish himself here.  And, as he crams for the test, sleep overcomes him and he dreams of intervals in our history.

Among some of the many characters he meets along the Oz-like journey are explorers, Lewis (Houghton) and Clark (Bradshaw) and their Native American guide, Sacajawea (Escobar); the President, Teddy Roosevelt (Enrique E. Andrade); Viola Pettus (Shelley B. Shelley), an Afro-American sharecropper, compassionate fighter again the flu epidemic of 1918; Johnny (Houghton), an Asian-American in a relocation camp during WWII and his compassionate teacher, Mrs. Finney (Louanne Moldovan); Dodgers #42, the great, Jackie Robinson (Joe Gibson); labor leader, Harry Bridges (Garland Lyons); and even his own father (Anthony Green); and others.

It is an eye-opening trek for Juan and puts things in perspective for him (and us, as well).  One important aspect that is obvious, is that we are all immigrants, or of immigrant stock, except the Native Americans.  But when it comes time for prejudicial behavior in America from some, it appears that color of one’s skin is the main issue.  After all, you didn’t see any interment camps for German-American citizens during WWII, did you?  But language, religion, sexual orientation follow closely behind.

You’ll have to see for yourself how all these different elements play out and the conclusion that is drawn.  But I think the purpose of the play is not so much to answer questions for Juan but to have us ask questions of ourselves about the issues presented.  He (as we should) needs to walk around in another’s person’s skin for awhile to garner perspectives on the world at large.  Perhaps we will see not differences, but similarities, on how we approach things.

Huffman is absolutely amazing with what she can do with a small space, an epic story and a very talented array of actors.  She keeps the play moving and you never lose track of who the characters are and where they are.  And the set/lighting (Megan Wilkerson) and terrific video backdrops (Lawrence Siulagi) are a real plus to the production, keeping us apprised of where we are in time and space.  And the costumes (Sara Ludeman) are extraordinary, giving us a rapid-fire look and a huge array of characters.

The ensemble is exceptional, one of the best I’ve seen!  And Gonzalez stands out as the focal point.  He underplays the character perfectly, so that you can empathize with him and identify with his plight.  I’ve reviewed many of the actors in this show before and it’s to their credit that they have stretched themselves in roles that I haven’t seen them explore before.

And, a side note, some of the shows I’ve seen over the years have been played on elaborate stages with loads of money in producing them.  But, for me, as pleasing as some of these productions are, there is something I greatly admire about a “grass roots,” theatre and a black box presentation of a play.  An actor/theatre is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and all that is really needed is an author’s words, an actor/creator’s talent and an audience’s imagination.  All the rest, although perhaps, pleasant to look at, is just window-dressing.  This theatre is one of the best at exploring those possibilities.

I highly recommend this show.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.