Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ brings past to present and future

Source: San Francisco Chronicle | By Marcus Crowder | June 7, 2019 | Updated: June 12, 2019, 12:03 pm

“Kiss My Aztec!” is set in 1560, but like so many theater productions rooted in history, it’s really all about today.

A celebratory world premiere comic musical that also marks the end of an era at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, “Aztec” tells a story slyly rooted in the past — enslaved Aztecs rising up against their Spanish oppressors. But its story is cast through a funky, modern cultural and creative lens that gets to the heart of today’s Latin American experience.

The irreverent book by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone channels the anarchic spirit of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” recalling the satiric bite of the Culture Clash troupe while exploring Latin history and reclaiming the richness of its culture.

The text details the complexity of Aztec architecture, sophistication of agriculture and the systematic European erasure of culture by the burning of the Mayan codices in 1562. Though Leguizamo does not appear in the production, his steely, satiric spirit infuses the play. Europeans are mocked for their greed and lack of cultural awareness and a climactic duel becomes a dozens joke competition from Leguizamo’s youth in Queens.

Leguizamo is the celebrity name attached, but much of this production is about Taccone, the celebrated Berkeley Rep artistic director who will end his 22-year run after “Aztec,” a vibrant production that has Taccone hallmarks of a cheeky political surface and subtle historic depth.

The show opens with a musical warning to beware of “White People on Boats,” which we’re told the proliferation of not only preceded the downfall of the Aztecs but the Americas in general. The Aztec resistance follows El Jaguar Negro (Chad Carstarphen) who orchestrates a revolution according to the changing hues of a coming blood-red full moon. Colombina (a fierce Yani Marin), his black-leather-jeans-wearing daughter, is the most down for the struggle of all Jaguar’s followers. But Jaguar has his doubts about Colombina, so she chafes in the argumentative rap “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do.”

Yani Marin (front) plays Colombina in the world premiere of “Kiss My Aztec!”

A dexterous 11-person ensemble portrays the indigenous Aztec insurgents and the interloping Spanish invaders. Led by the disarming Joél Pérez as Pepe, a puppet-toting jester, the actors energize the broad spectacle and pull out the comic notes in the often dense lyrics of the songs.

We always know we’re in the present being told a story conjured from the past. Clint Ramos’ spare set of metal railings, scaffolding and stairs set against a street-styled mural back wall could be a warehouse in Oakland or Queens. Similarly, his costumes feature hip-hop street wear, colorful mismatched prints, Converse shoes and khaki cargo pants. The dialogue mashes up modern slang with “Elizabethan dialect” resulting in songs such as “Nobody Compareth to the Spanish.”

Chad Carstarphen (left), Richard Henry Ruiz and KC de la Cruz as Spaniards in “Kiss My Aztec!,” with Desiree Rodriguez (left) and Maria-Christina Oliveras.Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Speaking of these white people in boats, the Spaniards are broke, having plundered all the gold they can. They’re led by Viceroy Rodrigo (Al Rodrigo), looking like Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.” Rodrigo has ungrateful children problems of his own. Son Fernando (an outstanding Zachary Infante) has designs on the throne with the help of his lover, the cleric Reymundo (Carstarphen) and Rodrigo’s wayward daughter Pilar (Desiree Rodriguez ), whom Rodrigo hopes to use as political collateral through marriage but who has her own sexual interests.

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