If you find holiday traditions too traditional, it may be comforting to know that an old favorite has been reinvigorated with passion, family-oriented fun and infectious musical prowess with an authentically Hispanic flavor. Teatro Público de Cleveland’s recent production of A Xmas Cuento Remix— which ran through December 21 at Cleveland Public Theatre — delivered on its promise to offer a good time and a reset button on Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol, as writer Maya Malan-Gonzalez strips the original story to its core, giving it an aesthetic overhaul.
This fresh new play was a collaborative effort with two Hispanic theatres — the 16th Street Theater in Chicago and the bilingual Milagro theatre in Portland, where the play was originally commissioned. The play here concluded with sold-out shows, and it has created quite the buzz as a virtuous play promoting equality for a minority voice.
Instead of mean ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge, the focus is on penny-pinching Dolores Avara (Mónica A. Cerpa Zúñiga), a bar owner and uptight businesswoman who refuses to acknowledge her remaining extended family, even when her niece Anita Chapa (Hilary Wheelock) comes to Dolores in emotional and financial distress, hoping to patch up hard feelings from years ago as well as ask for a loan to save her and her loyal yet headstrong husband Tomas’ (Andrew Aaron Valdez) home.
In a more personal approach to the Christmas Carol story, the redemption is more focused on Dolores’ coldness towards embracing her family rather than on her desire for wealth and greed, which is something lost in translation in many other adaptations of Dickens’ novel.
However, greed isn’t an absent trait, as Dolores also must tackle the issue of whether to sell off an apartment building which would leave her struggling tenants homeless, and the treatment of her only loyal employee, the underpaid bartender Joaquin (Anthony Velez, who is also the play’s choreographer).
All these dilemmas cause Dolores to be visited by spirits on Christmas Eve, this time based on Mexican and Mayan deities and iconic figures within the culture. Ixchel, the ghost of Christmas past (Blanca Iris García Rivera Salva), comes to Dolores with memories of her father (also Valdez) and her sister (also Wheelock), which have prevented Dolores from reconnecting with family. Then, the flashy, sequin-dressed Sol (Tania Benites) and the stoic, Carmen Sandiego-esque La Catrina (Christina Patterson) respectively represent Christmas present and future, giving Dolores more perspective on the world around her as part of her intervention.
Director Holly Holsinger manages the rapid pace of this script to give the play a pleasant sing-songy flow, as scenes pass with a creative transition containing a musical dance number as the cast rearranges the set pieces. The music has a dynamic range, blending hip-hop and Latin remixes of classics such as “Ring Christmas Bells” and “Silent Night” and traditional Mexican songs such as “Los Peces En El Río” and “Noche De Paz,” with wonderful arrangements by music director Maria Didonato. The show also benefits from having a live band, led on piano by Didonato.
Scenic Designer Aaron Benson crafted a multifaceted cityscape set with loads of detail, from the working street light to the papel picado adorning center stage, and Stage Manager Jesse Reagan Hernon utilizes the set for some inventive uses, including a clever moment where the diegetic radio and TV on stage are represented by the ensemble actors standing upstage left.
No play is without its faults, however, and there is glaring problem with the nature of the ‘commentary’ that follows many of the scenes. A majority of the cast lingers on set and reacts to some of the events that transpire, and it has its novelty and does supply its share of laughs in its fourth-wall breaking. But this method gets old as a means for a cheap laugh more often than not, obliterating any emotional weight to otherwise great pieces of dialogue with an “Mhmm” or collective gasp. The show encourages interaction enough that this isn’t unnecessary.
The ending sequence of Dolores’ redemption is one of the strongest scenes in the play, because this commentary is almost non-existent. It displays the immense talent the cast possesses in creating heartfelt moments— despite its own efforts to not take itself seriously.
As some astute Spanish-speakers may have noticed, the play was written with uniquely Mexican slang in mind for its initial production in the Oregon Hispanic community and is recited here in Cleveland where many of the terms are spoken with a Puerto Rican accent, and the pronunciations of some of these words is a little hit and miss even upon the untrained ear.
Such are the growing pains of a fledgling production, but these faults can be forgiven, much like the actions of Dolores in the first act of the play, with the delivery of a genuinely entertaining time at the theatre. The choreography by Velez is lively and always impressive, the energy consistently grabs your attention and the play beams with creativity to mold a unique experience that warrants a return next year to give more residents of Cleveland a chance to see this show.
Xmas Cuento Remix is a unique reinterpretation written for initially for Hispanic or bilingual audiences, yet its storytelling and message are ubiquitous to all who witness it. The fun and excitement from this production has us turning a blind eye towards its negligible flaws. After all, it is Christmas.