Play Review: “Kiss My Aztec”

“Kiss My Aztec” from the La Jolla Playhouse is a fun, unapologetically silly re-imagining of Aztec history.

In the first musical number of the chaotically fun play “Kiss My Aztec,” our ancient Aztec protagonists leap onto the stage to sing about the invading Spaniards (“White People On Boats”). During the song, the male lead Pepe (Joel Perez) says in an uncanny President Donald Trump imitation, “They’re bringing disease. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Pepe is, of course, referring to white Europeans. The moment receives a big laugh, but it also serves the purpose of drawing a line between the past and present. “Kiss My Aztec” asks the audience to consider: What might have happened if the Aztecs had won against the Spanish in the 1500s? And what would that look like as a comedy?

The story starts with a prophecy from the witch Tolima (Maria-Christina Oliveras): If the Aztecs do not defeat the Spanish before the coming of the blood moon, the Aztecs will be doomed to extinction. The Aztec chief (Chad Carstarphen) plans an attack on the citadel, where the wealthy Spanish viceroy resides with his children. The resulting story explores the day before the attack, and it is equal parts dramatic twists and splashy dance numbers.

When at its best, “Kiss My Aztec” is an enjoyable and unapologetically silly musical with exceptional choreography, rap music, and Latinx actors showing off their comedic chops. Zachary Infante, who plays the viceroy’s son Fernando, is a particular standout among the cast. A subplot involves Fernando’s enormously entertaining relationship with his gay lover, the leader of the Inquisition. In one memorable number (“Tango in the Closet”), the conniving yet sweetly endearing couple dance across the stage and sing, “God must be gay!” The close of the song brought well-deserved, ear-deafening cheers from the giddy audience.

Also of note are the charmingly anachronistic costumes. The Aztecs first burst onto the stage wearing a mix of modern clothes and battle gear — colorful tank tops and animal masks, Converse high tops and furs. Meanwhile, their Spanish enemies are dressed in frilly royal clothing with puffy sleeves. There is no question about who the good and bad guys are. The good guys are the ones who look cool as hell.

Writers John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone, both of whom have won Tony Awards, clearly have the know-how to tell a compelling story. There is rarely a slow moment in the plot. From epic battles to delightful romances, every scene is packed with drama and jokes at every corner. Not all the jokes succeed — there is a recurring gag involving puppets that gets tiresome after the third or fourth or … tenth time — but on the whole, the play is a pleasure to watch.

And yet, as humorous as the musical is, the tragedy of its true history cannot help but hang over the story like an insidious cloud. Recent years have brought plenty of historical fictionalized stories told from the perspectives of marginalized peoples, and rightly so. “Kiss My Aztec,” though, eschews history and attempts to change the past altogether. What if the Spanish conquistadors had been ridiculous, bumbling fools instead of a terrifying imperial power with guns? What if magic and fate and the gods had been on the side of the Aztecs? What if worldwide imperialism could have been defeated by a small, ragtag team of heroes? What if?

Perhaps the play intends to be purely escapist, a pleasant fantasy where history had been kinder to our heroes. If that were the case, though, the characters wouldn’t be making continuous references to Trump’s wall or to the current horrors of immigration law. The play frequently tries to be both escapist and relevant to modern issues, and so it doesn’t fully succeed at either. Still, that doesn’t change that “Kiss My Aztec” is genuine fun. The Aztecs may not have actually won against the Spanish, but it sure is nice to pretend, just for a bittersweet couple of hours, that they had.

Grade: B
Director: Tony Taccone
Starring: Angelica Beliard, Chad Carstarphen, Julio Catano, KC De La Cruz
Runs: September 3 – October 13, 2019
Location: La Jolla Playhouse

Image courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse.