Hartford Stage presents “Kiss My Aztec!,” an irreverent new musical comedy written by John Leguizamo and David Kamp through Sunday.
Following a run in Berkeley, California, the show explores the aftereffects of colonization through song, dance, puppetry and some very bedazzled codpieces.
The show is set in 1540 — 19 years after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Nevertheless, despite its claim to historical source material and quasi-Shakespearean dialogue, “Kiss My Aztec!” is not a period piece. Instead, the show follows the merry misadventures of an imaginary Aztec resistance set on undermining an evil Spanish viceroy who wears curlers.
Along the way, the audience meets larger-than-life characters like the warlike Colombina (Krystina Alabado), goofy, puppet-loving Pepe (Joel Perez), and the witch Tolima (Maria-Christina Oliveras) who is occasionally possessed by an Aztec goddess and forced to curse her enemies with rhyming invocations of chorizos and cojones.
Despite the jokes about gay inquisitors, inbred princes and dancing skeletons, the beating heart of the show are the contradictions inherent to mestizo identity. In this show, however, the beating heart is sacrificed onstage by a band of warriors who wear sparkly 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 criss-cross each other to a fever pitch, the characters constantly don and shed their disguises, pretending to be who they are not in order to fit in with their colonizers.
Following the theme of mixed identity, the set and costumes designed by Clint Ramos mix traditional Aztec symbols with modern-day street styles to create a vibrant hodge-podge that works to relocate the audience in a modern day version of the past. Similarly, the score incorporates diverse pan-Latin influences from salsa, rap, bachata, merengue, tango, and rock. Particularly notable are “Cave Rap” and “Puppetry Slam,” two numbers that blend rap music seamlessly with the dialogue.
A very funny show about not-so-funny subject material, “Kiss My Aztec!” creates an alternate world where it is possible to make jokes about genocide, incest, rape, and colonization. The show pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable to say onstage, even in a comedic setting.
One number, “Happy Amigos,” features a show-within-a-show where Pepe and Colombina sing and dance about how grateful they are to be colonized by the Spanish. Full of negative Latino stereotypes, it is unclear whether the appropriate response is to laugh, cringe, or cry. Maybe a combination of all of the above.
Addressing this awkwardness in a post-show talkback, Maria-Christina Oliveras (Tolima) expressed her faith in comedy to bring change.
“The discomfort is where the change happens. By engaging in this side of discomfort, it gives us space to move forward,” she said.
Leading man Joel Perez (Pepe) also pointed out that humor is often a coping mechanism for people who survive 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 talk-back. ”It’s so great to be in a show where I’m not wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
However, despite the good sentiments from the cast, the message occasionally comes off as painfully obvious. In the grand finale, “Día de los Vivos,” (Day of the Living) the cast breaks the fourth wall and tries to recruit the audience in a saccharine stab at community-building. Additionally, the plot occasionally stumbles in its attempt to catch up with the number of gags stuffed into the show.
At a few points, it is unclear why the characters are onstage, but it is easy to forget about such a pesky little thing like plot when the show coasts for two-and-a-half hours on pure energy and the tongue-in-cheek sincerity of a dynamic ensemble.
Casting a rare combination of diverse performers who can sing, dance, act, and deliver jokes in both English and Spanish, “Kiss My Aztec!” has achieved something extraordinary. The chemistry between the show’s leads is dynamic, as the tough Colombina and the goofy Pepe work as comedic foils to each other while simultaneously uncovering the imperfections in each other’s character.
At one point, the no-nonsense Colombina asks jokester Pepe “Who cares about a musical routine when there are real people dying in the real world?”
Colombina asks a very fair question. At a time where the challenges Latinos face may seem insurmountable, what can a new musical comedy really accomplish?
Pepe never answers the question, but Juan Leguizamo tries to.
“Learning about human history, even the ugly parts, makes us better human beings,” he wrote in the show program. “Learning this history through art makes the process enlightening and fun. We sing along and shake our thangs in the mighty cause of self-improvement and the perfectibility of humanity.”
Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. To learn more about RFA go to www.reportforamerica.org. Guzmán can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lauguzm_n