Hartford Stage presents “Kiss My Aztec!”, an irreverent new musical comedy written by John Leguizamo and David Kamp by Sunday.
After a run in Berkeley, California, the show explores the aftermath of colonization through song, dance, puppetry and some very dazzling codpieces.
The show is set in 1540 – 19 years after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. But despite its claim to historical source material and quasi-Shakespearean dialogue, Kiss My Aztec! is not a period piece. Instead, the show follows the hilarious misadventures of an imaginary Aztec resistance bent on subverting an evil, curler-wearing Spanish viceroy.
Along the way, audiences encounter larger than life characters like the warlike Colombina (Krystina Alabado), the goofy, doll-loving Pepe (Joel Perez), and the witch Tolima (Maria-Christina Oliveras), who is occasionally possessed by an Aztec goddess and forced to take her enemies with her to curse rhyming invocations chorizo and cojones.
Despite the jokes about gay inquisitors, inbred princes and dancing skeletons, the beating heart of the show is the inherent contradictions mestizo Identity. In this show, however, the beating heart is sacrificed onstage by a group of warriors who wear sparkling purple robes and sing along to gospel music in a number called “Make the Impossible Possible.”
As the show progresses and the cases of mistaken identity cross to fever pitch, the characters constantly don and doff their disguises and pretend who they are not to match their colonizers.
Following the theme of mixed identity, the Clint Ramos-designed set and costumes blend traditional Aztec symbols with modern street styles to create a vibrant hodgepodge that transports audiences to a modern-day version of the past. Similarly, the score incorporates various pan-Latin influences from salsa, rap, bachata, merengue, tango and rock. Of particular note are “Cave Rap” and “Puppetry Slam,” two numbers that seamlessly blend rap music with dialogue.
A very fun show about not-so-funny topics, “Kiss My Aztec!” creates an alternate world where it is possible to make jokes about genocide, incest, rape and colonization. The show pushes the limits of what is acceptable on stage, even in a comedic setting.
One number, “Happy Amigos,” features a show within a show, with Pepe and Colombina singing and dancing about how grateful they are to be colonized by the Spanish. Riddled with negative Latino stereotypes, it’s unclear whether the appropriate response is to laugh, flinch, or cry. Maybe a combination of everything.
Maria-Christina Oliveras (Tolima) addressed this awkwardness in a post-show talkback, expressing her faith in comedy to bring about change.
“The discomfort is where the change takes place. By engaging with that side of discomfort, it gives us room to move forward,” she said.
Lead actor Joel Perez (Pepe) also pointed out that humor is often a coping mechanism for people surviving historical trauma, particularly in the Latino community.
“People don’t think our culture can be funny. We’re usually portrayed as drug dealers or convicts,” Perez said during the call. “It’s so great to be on a show where I’m not wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
Despite the cast’s good feelings, however, the message occasionally comes across as painfully obvious. In the grand finale, Día de los Vivos (Day of the Living), the cast breaks the fourth wall and tries to win the audience over to community building with a sugar-sweet jab. Additionally, the storyline occasionally stumbles in its attempt to catch up with the number of gags stuffed into the show.
At some points it’s unclear why the characters are on stage, but it’s easy to forget such a pesky little thing as the plot as the show plods along with sheer energy and a twinkle in the eye for two and a half hours. Cheek sincerity of a dynamic ensemble.
Featuring a rare combination of diverse cast members who can sing, dance, act and joke in both English and Spanish, Kiss My Aztec! The chemistry between the show’s leads is dynamic, as tough Colombina and goofy Pepe act as comedic foils for each other while exposing the imperfections in each other’s characters.
At one point, the sober Colombina asks prankster Pepe, “Who cares about a musical routine when real people are dying in the real world?”
Colombina asks a very fair question. What can a new musical comedy do at a time when the challenges Latinos face may seem insurmountable?
Pepe never answers the question, but Juan Leguizamo tries.
“Learning about human history, even the ugly parts, makes us better people,” he wrote on the show program. “Learning this story through art makes the process enlightening and fun. We sing along and shake our ears for the mighty cause of self-improvement and human perfection.”
Latino communities reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national aid program that places journalists in local newsrooms. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org. Guzmán can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @lauguzm_n