Aug 7, 2010
Could American Night be Culture Clash's best show ever? And might it also signify, more than any show yet staged at Oregon Shakes, the festival's new direction under the leadership of artistic director Bill Rauch? I can only say, having seen the Clash do its subversively silly sketch comedy on contemporary themes for nearly 20 years now, and having followed Bill's progress as a visionary leader and collaborator for nearly as long, that the Clash's new show--a spiky, spirited, unaccountably moving romp through pop culture and politics around the theme of immigration and the infinitely fractal nature of hyphenate American identity--represents both a career summation and a kind of mission statement, a promise made as much as fulfilled, for both Culture Clash and Rauch's OSF.
It's always been easy to dismiss the Clasheros' shtick as multicultural Monty Python, as TV sketch material that happens to be onstage. And when I first saw them in The Mission at LATC, the easiest comparison at hand for their stereotype-exploding comedy was In Living Color. But Culture Clash's work has aged better than the legacy of that series, not least because they've honed their art as live theater artists, incorporating Anna Deavere Smith-style docu-theater practice into their writing, but also because the stage is the natural home of this kind of up-to-the-minute commentary, the success of an SNL notwithstanding.
So when a rancorous Tea Party Town Hall erupts about two thirds of the way through American Night (the whole thing is the fever dream of a young Mexican immigrant cramming for his U.S. Citizenship exam), the show doesn't just score easy points against big-haired birthers and Second Amendment wackos; it complicates the discourse with black characters from increasingly Latino South Central L.A., as resentful in their own way as whites are at the browning of California; Asian and Indian IT workers also elbow their way into the colloquy. And in the midst of a segment set at Manzanar Relocation Camp, a young Japanese American describes the rounding-up of his family and friends, even one old man wrenched from the convenience store where he was "refusing to serve blacks just like good American white shop owners." It's may not be Shaw, exactly, but the kaleidoscope of voices and points of view makes for a rich and almost giddy-making brew.
I'll just pause to acknowledge that only two of the Clash trio--droopily acerbic Richard Montoya and versatile livewire Herbert Siguenza--are in this show, though both Montoya and Culture Clash are credited as authors. Indeed, I've been told this is the first Clash show minus the cherubic Ric Salinas. I'm not sure why he's not in it; murmurs about a very tough development process between Montoya and director Jo Bonney were hard to avoid the week I was there; Montoya cites Salinas' toddlers as the reason here. But Salinas is missed. The central story of immigrant Juan Jose might be more affecting with him in the role; Rene Millan is absolutely fine, but the framing story of his personal journey, from needing to wanting to become American, is structurally sound but emotionally thin.
So why does the show otherwise work so well, as well as anything Culture Clash has done since Bowl of Beings? It has something do with the fact that this entire cast of OSF rep regulars, under Bonney's clean-lined direction, rises to the level of honorary Clasheros; this former Actors' Gang fan particularly enjoyed watching Kate Mulligan integrate her brittle brilliance into this manic mix. Indeed, at some point, the rapid-fire flipbook of irreverent caricatures, from Bob Dylan to Big Love to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, from an old-time radio broadcast to a dizzying Japanese game show, reminded me of the transcendently rude pleasures of Jerry Springer: The Opera.
Though I doubt we'll see that cathartic blast of blasphemy land at Oregon Shakes (next year's musical: Pirates of Penzance), the fact that Culture Clash is premiering their newest--and again, possibly tightest and timeliest--show in Southern Oregon strikes me as a very big deal indeed. Possibly even more striking is that this ensemble-created political comedy is the first salvo in "American Revolutions," a series of 37 plays commissioned by OSF from the likes of Robert Schenkkan, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, and many more. This is not business as usual for the classical rep company nestled anomalously in the Siskiyou mountain plain, to put it mildly. I look forward to more in this vein.
I'm a few days behind on my Ashland blogging. I'll have to catch up soon with my takes on Rauch's Merchant of Venice, Rebecca Taichman's She Loves Me, and Darko Tresnjak's Twelfth Night, as well as an overview of my experience of the festival, both onstage and around the town, this year.
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 10:33 AM