SANTA FE, N.M. — In the throes of an identity crisis, Alex Nunez starts putting on a mask.
It’s a vejigante mask, one that a dancer would wear during Carnivale celebrations in Puerto Rico.
That’s one part of the costume for “El Coquí Espectacular.” Alex and this superhero are the focus of a new comic book-esque play opening at Teatro Paraguas later this week.
“El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom,” written by Brooklyn-based playwright Matt Barbot, premiered in 2018 at the Two River Theater in New Jersey. Director Roxanne Tapia said the new show stuck out to her as the theater group was searching for Latino plays for this season.
“It was funny, clever, relevant and different from what we’ve done,” said Tapia.
The story moves between the real life and the imagination of Alex, a comic book writer who lives in Sunset Park, a Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn.
According to Tapia, Alex’s character greatly struggles with his Latin identity. Though his parents are from Puerto Rico and he’s visited the island, he’s not from the island. He and his brother don’t speak fluent Spanish and, growing up in New York, they were not connected to the culture in the same way their parents are. One of the guys who used to bully Alex in school, the character notes in the show, labeled him a “Sorta Rican.”
Blurring the lines between Alex’s comic book world and reality, that bully and the supervillain existing in his imagination – El Chupacabra – are played by the same actor.
“He’s from New York,” Tapia said about Alex. “He’s a little not Puerto Rican enough.”
As a result of these feelings, Alex creates El Coquí. His Puerto Rican comic book character is named after a type of frog native to the island. His superhero call is the same whistle noise the frog makes, and the hero’s backstory has roots in other elements of the culture, such as Santería and Taino symbols. His horned vejigante mask is based on one his late father brought back to New York from Puerto Rico.
But after Alex gets a bad case of writer’s block, he decides to dress up as his character and patrols the Sunset Park neighborhood in costume, blowing up on social media after a photographer named Yesica starts taking pictures of him.
Though he considers his costumed outings a way to better understand his imaginary character, “also it’s a way for him to be what he sees as the ideal version of himself,” said Miles Blitch, who plays Alex in the Santa Fe production. “Somebody who’s deeply connected to Puerto Rican culture.”
At the same time, Alex’s brother Joe has similar issues of not being as connected to his Boricua roots.
However, working for a corporate advertising agency, he is often considered the “Latin” guy in the room for many of the company’s projects, including its latest one for a soda being marketed to Hispanic millennials. He eventually gets Alex involved with this endeavor, which causes issues for the characters later on.
“It’s kind of a generational thing, too, which I think we all relate to in our own individual lives,” said Jake McCook, the actor portraying Joe. “They’re kind of stuck between these two worlds of the past, tradition and the way the neighborhood used to be, and gentrification and how it’s changing. They want a little bit of both worlds and they don’t know where they fit.”
Through the quirky comedic elements of the show, the play touches on themes of identity, as well as Latin stereotypes, cultural sensitivity, commercialization and generational divides. Because of those wide-ranging themes, McCook said he feels there’s something that everyone can relate to.
“Different generations are going to get something out of it,” he said. “There’s something for everyone. Someone from the older generation is going to connect really well with the mother and the storylines about the father, but it’s a great play for millennials, it’s great for young people who are into comic books.”
The show is recommended for all ages, with the disclaimer that there is some use of foul language. “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” also stars Cristina Vigil as Yesica, Ricky Mars as Junior and El Chupacabra, and Juliet Salazar as the Nunezes’ mother and other small roles throughout the performance. The show’s run begins Thursday and goes until April 28.