Cuauhtemoczin – Written by Diego Florez-Arroyo; Directed by Phil Luna. Produced by Control Group Productions (Presented at the People’s Building, 9995 East Colfax, Aurora) through January 20th. Tickets available at ControlGroupProductions.com.
As a learned professor said recently on NPR, “If Hispanic people can learn to say, ‘Worcestershire sauce,” Anglo’s can learn to say “Cuauhtemoczin.“ Some have; I’m still struggling. Cuauhtemoczin was the last leader of the Aztec people before a difficult surrender to the armies of Cortes. As a true leader, he asked Cortes to take his own knife and kill him on the spot, a “death before dishonor” move. However, Cortes respected bravery in a warrior and spared him, allowing his soldiers to return to their villages. He took the warrior king with him on his next campaign, but later trumped up a supposed plot by Cuauhtemoczin to have him assassinated. This led to his torture and eventual hanging. He is honored throughout Mexico as the person who kept his people and his culture alive by hiding it from the conquerors, yet within themselves.
A noble story worth being told to unknowing Anglos, its connection to this modern-day theatrical production is somewhat tentative. In the beautiful Aztec costume used at the beginning of the show behind a scrim, it was impossible to see who was wearing it. Learning only after the show that it was the main character Dante (Jozer Guerrero) made the desire he had for the culture of the warrior and the leader he wished to emulate obscured by the feathers and mask. The bulk of Dante’s life is lived in prison because of his desire to protect his family. Barring military life, this is nearly the only way a man in this century can demonstrate his heroic tendencies. But was it really what his family needed of him?
While the audience only sees Dante’s outside time through short scenes with the females in his life, his desire for family and an honorable place in his society seems difficult to achieve because of the strength of these women. In their short scenes of visitation in prison, their determination to go on, their continuation of a life outside without him, seems only to bring him more dishonor.
The prison scenes that explain Dante’s life and his desire to escape the spiral of recidivism he’s caught in. His relationships with his fellow prisoners are sometimes brutal, sometimes funny, always thoughtful. These characters in this location have the potential of a spin-off production of their own. They have a casual attitude about who and where they are; some wish to learn and better themselves; some plan a life outside; some know they will never leave. But the relationships between the men seemed authentic and nearly improvised in its naturalness. I wanted to know more about them.
Especially Juanito, a bookworm who tried to get everyone interested in reading played by Jesse Lee Pacheco. Could Juanito be given the task of teaching the prisoners about the life of Cuauhtemoczin as part of his pitch about reading more? It could have explained the need for a culture of masculine strength which seemed prevalent in this situation. A capo de capo type came into the prison during the second act (David Rodrida) who emanated menace with every line. The other inmates were given authentic characterizations with various reactions to imprisonment, but their names were not always evident in the dialogue. Their real-life names are Dillon Autry, Kian Way, and Sid Madrid and they all did a good job.
The women in the production introduced energy and purpose into the picture. Their short scenes were pithy and conveyed with intent how they felt about their errant relative and the situation he had gotten himself into. His grandmother (Megally Luna), his mother (Jordan Hull) and his sister (Hannah Victoria Pacheco) made the scene come alive and reinforced what Dante was missing on the outside and the place he had in their lives.
Technically this show needed help. The gaps between scenes were deadly; the endless moving of table and chairs to indicate different places in the prison was unnecessary in an area as large as the People’s Building playing space. There was plenty of room for two tables and multiple chairs that would have cut down on the need to move one table and the same chairs from one end of the room to the other. It would have allowed for the dialogue to be tightened up and the pacing made stronger. On the plus side, the endless loop of prison noises created by Taylor Brake and Steve Sundberg that played quietly in the background kept it real; but a recurring theme of music between scenes would have kept us connected during the few times movement of scenery was actually required. An interesting video that scanned a brief history of Hispanic culture through the ages brought us from Aztec to America.
All told, this was a good second production of a work in progress. It will keep getting better and better.
A WOW factor of 7.5!!