Regional Reviews: Chicago
Aztec Human Sacrifice
It is difficult to know what to make of this show, both literally and figuratively. The title seems to promise an offbeat comedy, a send up of musicals, or perhaps even a wry take on mainstream (read Eurocentric) culture's depiction of the people of the past, particularly in areas of the world that were colonized as brutal, irrational savages. But disappointment lies in store for the audience member that enters into the show with such expectations.
It is a comedy, broadly speaking, but where it finds its humor is in questionable taste. The titular subject is played for laughs from time to time, but in other instances, characters are killed brutally, casually, and almost entirely without comment. The combination certainly doesn't work. One of the two main characters serially murders her lovers as they climax. She attributes the compulsion to her childhood sexual abuse by the High Priest, a fact that becomes a throw-away joke about her psychosexual issues in Act II.
The show's two acts have strikingly different tones. In the first, the Chosen One flees the temple to escape sacrifice on the morning following the play's opening. He makes his way through the city, encountering merchants, prostitutes, and ultimately the Princess. At each stop along the way, before he's forced to flee the High Priest, he encounters a song and dance that gives this act the feel of a dated Disney ride or Epcot exhibit.
Although the second act begins with a "hate song" that ends in a near-kiss between the Chosen One and the princess, most of it is infused with a kind of dreamy magical realism that is far more akin to early opera (complete with a countertenor musical number) than the late twentieth-century musicals the first act seems related to. The soon-to-be lovers confront her victims and the darkness that threatens if the Chosen One rejects his fate, and the story seems to lean fully into Campbell's Monomyth. These scenes are more engaging and demonstrate that there's some promise in the show's premise, but the disconnect between the two acts is jarring.
On top of these tonal difficulties, there's simply little logical or emotional continuity–even of the sort that holds together full-on parodies and screwball comedies. The prostitutes help the Chosen One escape the market for no reason. There seems to be no possible moment when the Chosen One becomes smitten with the princess. The audience is asked to believe that the Emperor has only heard rumors of the statues of dead lovers that fill his daughter's room. Although these shortcomings might be attributable to weak direction, the problems with the play itself may simply not be resolvable.
The staging itself is competent within the confines of a small and challenging space. Ray Toler's set design uses simple flats and fabric hangings to create the temple platform and the market area. In Act II, portions of the design fold up and in for easy concealment behind a curtain painted to suggest the desert.
Andrés Mota's costume design is simple and allows for quick changes while still effectively signaling class and social role. Eric Watkins' lighting design is more successful than it seems should be possible in resolving the disconnect between the two acts. The work of these two comes together in the show's most successful moments in Act II: The visuals for the musical number with the ghosts of the princess' lovers are stunningly creepy and effective, thanks to the combination of the costumes and the lighting.
The cast members are also good, on the whole. Miguel De León's singing voice is exceptional as the Emperor. As the High Priest, Luis Del Valle embraces the low bass of his part (which may or may not be a bit of a send up of Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar) with gusto.
Freddy Mauricio draws some genuine laughs as the Chosen One, and as the princess, Marcela Ossa Gómez does quite well with the play's more memorable music. Eric José Mendoza's performance as the Sorcerer (his countertenor debut, according to the program) is also among the show's successes.
Aztec Human Sacrifice runs through June 18, 2023, at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., (Inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church), Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.citylit.org or call 773-293-3682.