Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Days of the Dead

elite Dance & Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Iain Munro, Tim Nguyen, Alex Harden, Drew Sowers, and Paul Costales
Photo by Two Brunos Photography
Days of the Dead sounds like a Halloween show or a zombie apocalypse, but it's actually a Christmas story. Cheri Costales, who conceived, wrote, and directs this world premiere, describes it as "the nativity meets Assassin's Creed." Now, all I knew about Assassin's Creed is that it was a Michael Fassbender movie franchise I haven't seen. It is also one of the most popular video game series ever, so the show should appeal to a generation younger than mine that grew up playing the game.

The nativity, on the other hand, is a story known to pretty much everyone, but Cheri, as always, puts an original spin on it. You won't find the names Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Herod or God in this show. Instead you get names like Xochi, Axel, Tenoch, Cai, Gael (Gabriel, I'm guessing), and most saliently, "the ancient of days." "The ancient of days" is a name for God that occurs only three times in the Bible, all in one chapter of the book of Daniel. The Eastern Orthodox church identifies "the ancient of days" as God the Son (Jesus), whereas the western church equates the name with God the Father. In the play, we are told several times that "the ancient of days is on the move." I'll leave it up to you to decide which person of God is intended, or whether it makes any difference for a triune God.

The show begins with the Queen of the Dead, who has reigned for a thousand years and intends to reign for a thousand more. To her dismay, a new star appears in the sky, and sages prophesize that this portends the coming of a great warrior who will overthrow her. She has all the sages killed, but, foolish woman, doesn't she know that in every ancient play, the prophecy always comes true no matter what you do to stop it? Then three magi show up and reveal the same prophecy and, in a ruse, tell her that they will find the great warrior and bring him back to her--the Herod story in another guise. No one suspects that the warrior is still in the womb.

We then meet Xochi, who is on the run because she is pregnant out of wedlock, which was a condition that merited being stoned to death in those days. She knows who the father is, through a dream, but who would believe her? There is no Joseph in this story, but the warrior Axel is assigned to protect her and get her to a place where she can deliver safely. The Queen of the Dead's generals and army pursue them, and it's touch and go whether Mary—I mean, Xochi—will survive. There is no inn, no manger, no gold or frankincense or myrrh. The gifts of the magi are their lives.

The realm of darkness is a brutal world, and one must be a warrior to survive. I suspect that Cheri was also influenced by a passage in Paul's epistle to the Ephesians (6:10-17): "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but ... against the world rulers of this present darkness ..." Paul tells them to put on the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. This is meant to be metaphoric, of course, but in this show it is literalized. Thus, we witness a few battle scenes, as we would in a video game. These are expertly choreographed (by Noah Hardy) and take the place of some of the dancing that we expect in shows by elite Dance & Theatre. The fights are well performed, and especially impressive is a dance number with ninja implements. I would be surprised if no one got injured during rehearsal.

This reimagining of the nativity story is compellingly innovative, moves along quickly, and is, on the whole, well executed. However, the scenes in the court of the Queen of the Dead have a 1950s B-movie vibe. The dialogue and the acting are kitschy in a way that never quite reaches campy. Maybe this is intentional, as an homage, but I doubt it. Think of any Biblical or Hercules epic of the time, where the royal women are all lounging around in slinky costumes, and then the handmaidens go into a dance for no apparent reason. For some reason, I kept thinking of Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1958's Queen of Outer Space, which is a movie I've never even seen. (The costumes, by the way, are terrific. I'm not sure why we see the Queen in white instead of black in her final scenes, but maybe it's because even she has been transformed by the new light that has entered the world—although there is no dialogue to suggest that.)

Cheri has a very devoted troupe of actors and dancers, and they do their customary fine job here. Alex Harden and Vanessa Trujillo are good as the Joseph and Mary stand-ins. Drew Sowers, Tim Nguyen, and Iain Munro are quite impressive as the three magi. Alicia Swanson does what she can with the Queen's lines. Her two hunky generals, Dean Metzgar and especially Josh Canada, transcend the at-times clunky dialogue.

The music, all of it by artists I have never heard of, is well-chosen. The more traditional choreography by Cheri, Alyssa Costales, Esther Michnovicz, Kira Akmajian, and Vanessa Trujillo is well-designed and nicely performed; the fight choreography, as noted above, is exceptional.

Despite what I said above, the only real problem with this show is its title. If it is revived in a future holiday season, and it should be, my suggestion is to rename it "Death's Final Day."

I'm always impressed by what Cheri and elite manage to pull off three or four times a year, starting from scratch. It's always like nothing you can see anywhere else. We're lucky to have them in Albuquerque, and I look forward to whatever they cook up in 2018.

Days of the Dead, a world premiere by Cheri Costales and elite Dance & Theatre, through December 16, 2017, at the North 4th Theatre, 4904 4th Street NW in Albuquerque NM (just north of Griegos). Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:00; extra show added Saturday December 16 at 2:00. Info at