The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Loud & Proud Latinx Double-Feature: ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ World Premiere at Berkeley Rep AND ‘Oedipus El Rey’ Revival at The Magic

COMPOSITE - Kiss My Aztec world premiere at Berkeley Rep AND Oedipus El Rey revival at Magic Theatre

Yani Marin in Kiss My Aztec! (photo by Kevin Berne) and Lorraine Velez in Oedipus El Rey (photo by Jennifer Reily)

I saw three shows over the weekend. Of those three, one was super-funny, but I can’t write a review of it because that would be a conflict of interest. (Don’t let that stop y’all from seeing it – that show is an hilarious riff on children’s television and you’d never forgive yourselves if you didn’t laugh your asses off in person.

The other two shows were two wildly – emphasis on “wild” – different Bay Area-born shows about the Latinx experience. As much as we all love West Side Story, no amount of Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrites will change the fact that it’s still a show written by White guys with the Latinx characters (who were often played by White actors) viewed from the outside. It’s nice when a company stages a remount of Zoot Suit, but there’s still a noticeable dearth of original Latinx material on large stages.

At least, that’s the case in other places. This is the Bay Area: we’re proud of the fact that we nurtured the talents of Marisela Treviño Orta, Octavio Solis, and the troupe Campo Santo, to name a few off the top of my head. We celebrate the fact that when a local production calls for Latinx characters, we have an overabundance of Latinx actors to cast (and we aren’t hesitant to shame those who still cast White actors). And we love the unique stamp that comes from productions like these two, both originating here.

Just as I get equally excited by seeing multiple all-Black productions or multiple all-female productions in a row, I’m glad the majority of my weekend theatre work revolved around two distinctively Latinx works that, like me, were born and raised here in the Bay. Let’s see how they did…

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“I offend my family, myself, Irish people, Italian folk, Jewish folk, black folk, everybody. I mean political correctness is just such a hypocritical thing anyway. I love the ideal about it, but it’s just people politely behaving one way in front of you and then saying other things behind your back.”
– John Leguizamo being interviewed by CNN, “John Leguizamo: ‘Freak’ and proud of it” (2 November 1998)

There’s no mistaking John Leguizamo.

For better or for worse, his unapologetically over-the-top persona is as easy to recognize as the physical comedy of Chaplin and Keaton, with a loud vocal presence reminiscent of Sam Kinison and Gilbert Gottfried. It’s no wonder he frequently collaborates with Spike Lee: both From drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez to Toulouse-Lautrec to… whatever-his-character’s-name-was-in-Hangin’ with the Homeboys (am I the only one who remembers that flick?), Leguizamo’s presence is easy to pick out even when his face is covered up in devilish clown make-up.

So, when Leguizamo was convinced to turn his long-unproduced screenplay, Pain in the Aztec, into the theatrical musical Kiss My Aztec!, it wasn’t hard to see which role he’d clearly written for himself. Pepe, the obnoxious clown amongst hardened revolutionaries, is so nakedly an avatar for his creator that I’m surprised he wasn’t named “Lohn Jeguizamo”. As his comrades-in-arms prepare a full military take-down of the heartless Spaniards who subjugate them, Pepe’s plays with his puppets. That’s not a metaphor – Pepe has a pair of brightly-colored sock puppets whose back-and-forth repartee takes up about 1/3 of his dialogue.

You deserve to know this up front because Pepe is the most outlandish character of an already-over-the-top show. Your tolerance for him may well determine whether you love or hate the show. This is a show preceded by the songs “Tiburón” and “Suavemente” playing as cast members Desiree Rodriquez and Jesús E. Martínez toss bright red beach balls into the audience. It officially begins with a bruja – describing herself as “[our] witchy narrator” – giving an Our Town-esque scene setting before the ensemble break into an energetic number about the greatest danger in the entire world: “White People on Boats”. It’s a show that features the two swishiest Gay characters since In Living Color, a horny Frenchman with a face covered in coke, and a song about spooning set to the bossa nova melody of “The Girl from Ipanema”.

But that’s not what really has me on the fence about the show. Mainly, it’s the fact that the musical falls into the trap of frequently going into song for the sake of going into song. I’m a stickler for the old Sondheim adage that a both the audience and character(s) should be in a different place at the end of a song than when they started. Instead, this show – with a book by Leguizamo and Tony Taccone based on Leguizamo’s original screenplay with Stephen Chbosky – often tries to wedge in the musical numbers with a crowbar.

Not to mention the sense of déjà vu one gets from the story. Said story is modern day retelling of Aztec rebels rising up against a Spanish viceroy on the eve of a blood moon. Maybe its because I just saw a particular show last month so it’s still fresh in my mind, but I couldn’t help but notice similarities between that show (also written by a Boricua playwright) and this one: the historical rewrite; the abundant use of hip-hop; the viceroy being a parallel for that other play’s king; and so on. That’s not to say that the other show has a monopoly on those things by any means, but the similarities highlight how hard it is for Kiss My Aztec! to distinguish itself.

Which is not to suggest that the show is bad. Not at all. It’s just a bit much. What’s more, Tony Taccone has made his swan song as the Berkeley Rep’s artistic director a show that makes full use of all the company’s resources – most of which are provided by Latinx crew members.

Upon entering the theatre, one is immediately struck by Clint Ramos’s dark-but-colorful set. It resembles the back sort of foreboding back alley one would expect to see in some urban thriller, but the bright colors of the Aztec-inspired graffiti – particularly the calendar center piece with moon above it – give it vivid life. Each wall is adorned with scaffolding, with the show’s band secured at the stage-right rising. Additional lighting work (Alexander V. Nichols) and sounds (Jessica Paz) do well to take us from this barrio block to the Spanish court.

With the cast all operating at “11”, it would be easy to miss the stand-outs, but they are there. The first of which is the captivating Yani Marin as Colombina, the story’s lead female role. The story of tough-girl-just-wanting-to-be-taken-seriously-by-her-dad is cliché, but Marin injects Colombina with life in lieu of any textual depth. Colombina has the show’s first solo number (“Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do”) and combo of Marin’s energy with Maija García’s choreography make it worth all the effort put into it.

Speaking of Colombina’s dad, the other major stand-out of the cast is Chad Carstarphen, who also doubles Reymundo, the Spanish Inquisition priest engaged in a torrid affair with Fernando (Zachary Infante), son of the Viceroy Rodrigo (Al Rodrigo). Threatening to steal the show is Desiree Rodiguez as Pilar, the viceroy’s angry, amorous daughter. Pilar is often followed by the equally entertaining Tolima (Maria-Christina Oliveras), the aforementioned “witchy narrator” who goes undercover as Pilar’s handmaiden. I’d love to see these folks in shows where they aren’t cranked up like a massive sugar-high, but they serve their characters well.

And I have to mention the work of composer Benjamin Velez. Though the songs don’t always serve the plot, they’re always entertaining. The work of Velez, orchestrator Simon Hale, percussionist Wilson Torres, and supervisor David Gardos all make the Kenji Higashihama-led band the consistent high point of the show.

At the end of the opening night performance, Tony Taccone was brought on stage to take a bow of his own. The man is leaving a proud legacy behind, including one show (Ain’t too Proud) that won a Tony over the weekend, one show (Passing Strange) that is my all-time favorite musical, and several collaborations with a countless array of talented artists. Kiss My Aztec! might not be his crowning achievement, but it sees him going out with a bang.

Ultimately, the show is less distinctive a work of the artist leaving than the one who visited to collaborate. I found the show to be middle-of-the-road due to the over-the-top presentation that tried to cover up the shallow characterizations. It has no real depth or lasting impact, but if you’re in the mood for an all-Latinx show that swings for the fences, you may like it.

GRADE:                                                       C+

Kiss My Aztec! is scheduled to run until the 14th of July on the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
PLEASE NOTE that this show makes use of strobe lighting early on.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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“Hispanics are held in state prisons at an average rate of 378 per 100,000, producing a disparity ratio of 1.4:1 compared to whites.”
– The Sentencing Project’s 2016 study, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons (June 2016)

It’s a shame I didn’t see this show during its original run.

I’d just gotten back into theatre after about a decade away from it and, incidentally, wound up performing a show on The Magic stage, though not a Magic production. In fact, if I recall correctly, our show was sandwiched in-between the original run of this show and the mammoth undertaking that was Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge. I didn’t have a lot of money then (some things never change) and Magic tickets have never been cheap. If I hadn’t been in that one show, I’d have probably never seen the Magic stage that year.

I’m reminded of this because performing in that show is the last time I saw this stage so empty. It’s somewhat facetious to list Hana Kim as this show’s set designer when there’s no actual set, but, as her projections prove throughout the show, there’s much more going on that it first appears. This is a show for which the “emptiness” is merely a means of dropping all that is unnecessary to make the most of what’s at one’s disposal.

Had my ten-years-younger self known what this particular show was hiding, he’d have made it a priority to see this show during its original run. Money be damned.

Oedipus El Rey (Legacy Revival - 2019) - set

Set by Hana S. Kim. Photo by Me.

In the mind of the layperson, the story of Oedipus is a punchline. It’s a quip for boys perceived as being too attached to their mothers. Oversimplified, yes, but part of you can’t help but wonder if the public consciousness that stripped the story of Oedipus to just a psychological condition were trying to spare everyone the more gruesome details of the story? After all, the story of King Oedipus is one of the quintessential Greek tragedies. It’s a story in which a simple conversation could have solved everything, but not knowing that simple fact makes its eventual revelation all the more tragic.

I wasn’t sure how playwright Luis Alfaro would incorporate a monarchy and the original mythos into a contemporary setting, but it mostly works. I say “mostly” because I wasn’t completely sold on his use of the old Greek staple of “my son will betray me”, but it’s so quick that its almost inconsequential. Besides, the incorporation of the chorus and the gruesome punishments all blend seamlessly.

Whereas the Oedipus of myth was a king, baby-faced focus of this play is a lifelong victim of the school-to-prison pipeline that incarcerates so many Black and Latin men, they can’t help but think of it as home. And they do. Oedipus (Esteban Carmona) and his father figure Tiresias (Sean San José of Campo Santo) don’t know what to do with themselves on the outside. As soon as Oedipus is free, he kills a man. Not necessarily on purpose, but because it’s the only way he knows how to act when this man disrespects him.

Not having been caught for the killing, he finds a home with fellow former inmate Creon (Armando Rodriguez) and his sister, Jocasta (Lorraine Velez). Oedipus is an unapologetic atheist who only knows how to accept what he can feel; Jocasta is an unabashed Catholic who has lost just as much her new houseguest. That loss brings them together. It will inevitably be the very thing that tears them apart.

I probably shouldn’t worry about spoilers for a story that dates back a few thousand years, but even knowing the inevitable turns do nothing to soften their impact for me. Luis Alfaro’s adaptation successfully translates one of the great tragedies of Greek mythos into one of the great tragedies of US society.

And the astute direction of Loretta Greco doesn’t hurt either. She’d just begun her tenure as the Magic’s artistic director when she shepherded the original production. I can’t tell for sure how her vision has evolved since then, but she brings the right amount of atmospheric delicacy to this one. She allows her cast to feel the full range of emotions without chewing the scenery (which would be impossible in this case), she allows the action to be both violent and sexual without being gratuitous or explicit, and she clearly encourages her cast to be colorful without letting them fall into stereotypes. It’s the work of a director who has a clear handle on the material and a strong vision for bringing it to life.

She’s blessed with a cast led by the aforementioned Carmona in the title role. He’s much more adept at portrayin Oedipus’ ambition more than his confusion, but the tragedy of the events plays well on his face. Still, it goes without saying that this show belongs to Lorraine Velez as Jocasta. The would-be queen’s life takes every turn – from joyful tragic and back again several times over – and Velez is pitch perfect in every one of those moments. You want to see her have a happy ending, even though you know she won’t. It’s a shame to that Campo Santo no longer has a home of their own, but it’s no less a joy whenever Sean San José pops up in a local production, this one included. And although I’m not familiar with the work of chorus members Juan Amador, Armando Rodriguez, and Gendell Hing-Hernandez, their combined work here is something I won’t soon forget.

And it wouldn’t be a magic show without an excellent tech crew. As mentioned, Hana Kim makes up for the lack of physical set pieces with a series of projections that seamlessly blend with Wen-Ling Liao’s light and Jake Rodriguez’s sounds. Together, they change the blank stage into everything from a cold prison to the traffic-filled streets of LA to a chilling dream sequence in which Oedipus is bitten by a snake on orders of the Sphinx (Velez in a separate role). Great work, one and all.

The most tragic thing about the ending of Oedipus El Rey isn’t just who dies, but who lives and how. The United States seems to take pride in the fact that its former slaves and servants have escaped literal bondage only to be placed in a new set of chains. It’s a tragedy that could only be seen through the lens of story long before any of us were ever born. Translating it into an all-Latinx story doesn’t take away any of its power, nor (I’m assuming) has the story lost any of its impact in the decade since The Magic first brought it to life.

If you made my mistake of missing it the first time, now’s the perfect time to correct it.

GRADE:                                                            A

Oedipus El Rey is scheduled to run until the 23rd of June at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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