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BWW Review: KISS MY AZTEC! at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a Hilarious, Socially Hip Historical Romp Through the Aztec Empire

Jun. 18, 2019  

The theatre gods couldn't have engineered a better swan song for departing Artistic Director Tony Taccone than this collaboration on John Leguizamo's sprawling, effervescent kaleidoscope of Latino music, low comedy, politics and history. Leguizamo, who previously lectured us with 2016's Latin History for Morons, reaches for the stars with his vigorously crafted lunacy of re-imagined Aztec history that somehow manages to entertain wildly, educate smartly and create pure theatre magic. Kiss My Aztec!, a World Premiere for Berkeley Rep, deserves all the acclaim it will undoubtedly receive; its huge in scope, brilliantly acted, full of zany in-your -face comedy and music, and searingly topical.

(front, l to r) Chad Carstarphen (El Jaguar Negro), Jesús E. Martínez (Ensemble), Angelica Beliard (Ensemble), and Richard Henry Ruiz (Ensemble); (background) Maria-Christina Oliveras (Tolima) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

Leguizamo had been percolating the idea of a history of the Aztec Empire for years and the project took off when lyricist David Kamp and composer-co-lyricist Benjamin Velez joined the music team. Taccone and John focused on the book and Kiss was born. In this story, one intrepid heroine, Colombina, and one reluctant puppeteer, Pepe join forces to foil the Spanish attempt to create a kingdom in Aztec lands. Like a Shakespeare plot, the protagonists find themselves battling a pompous, wanna-be King, utilizing Aztec myth and magic, mistaken identities, rapacious sexual advances and plenty of Machiavellian chicanery. It's a hilarious mish-mash of Hamiltonian hip hop, salsa, meringue and rap with songs like "White People on Boats" about the impending invasion of the 'original immigrants', "Dark Meat', an ode to interracial sex, and "The Abstinence Song", a ridiculous cure for STD's by just keeping it in the pants.

Yani Marin (Colombina) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

The hardworking ensemble cast is solid through and through, not a weak link to be found. They're infused with the energy of working on an important project that has cultural significance while being fun as hell to perform. As the two leads, Yani Marin's sassy, feminist Colombina and Joel Perez's unwilling hero Pepe make an engaging combative couple. Told to stay home and out of battle, Colombina is having nothing to do with that and takes action into her very capable hands. Pepe would much rather entertain with his two sock puppets Machu and Pichu than become a hero, but his attraction to the beautiful Colombina is hard to overcome.

Joél Pérez (Pepe) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

Along the hilarious way, they'll encounter a series of scene-stealers; the Aztec sorceress Tolima (Maria-Christina Oliveras), a coke-sniffing political fixer Pierre Pierrot (Richard Henry Ruiz), the not-so in-the-closet gays Fernando (Zachary Infante) and Reymundo (Chad Carstarphen) and Al Rodrigo's strutting faux-royal Rodrigo. Desiree Rodriguez shines as the pimped out daughter Pilar, who'd rather defile herself than be given away as a virgin to an arranged marriage.

(front) Zachary Infante (Sebastian); (back row, l to r) KC de la Cruz (Ensemble) and Angelica Beliard (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

The plot plays out like a telenovela with Leguizamo and Taccone riffing on gays, nymphomaniacs, invading conquerors, feminism, cultural stereotypes and colonialism. The themes of family dysfunction among the 1%, power grabs and immoral behaviors resonate loudly today.

Al Rodrigo (Rodrigo) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

Taccone's keen director's eye keeps all the fantasy and bedlam sharp and focused. He's put together a stellar crew that supports and elevates the ensemble; Clint Ramos' 15th century costumes and graffiti inspired set, Alexander V. Nichols beautiful lighting, Maija Garcia's choreography and the powerful music supervision of David Gardos with orchestrations by Simon Hale. The look and sound of this production match the excellence of the writing and directing.

Richard Henry Ruiz (Pierre Pierrot) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

The chorus of the final song mentions 'the world is getting browner'. Humor is John Leguizamo's weapon and he wields it to enlighten us to deep social issues; the struggles of the oppressed, be it cultural, religious, sexual or gender related. After seeing Kiss My Aztec!, I had the same feeling as after Hamilton -wildly excited and super energized. From Berkeley Rep to Broadway?

(front, l to r) Chad Carstarphen (Reymundo), Richard Henry Ruiz (Ensemble), and KC de la Cruz (Ensemble); (background, l to r) Desiree Rodriguez (Pilar) and Maria-Christina Oliveras (Tolima) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec!at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone.

Kiss My Aztec! continues through July 14th, 2019 at the Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets and information available at https://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling (510) 647-2949.

Photos by Kevin Berne


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