The story of A Xmas Cuento Remix begins with a play being handed from one generation to another. In 2015, Milagro Theatre co-founder José González began discussing the possibility of a Christmas show with his daughter, Los Angeles-based playwright Maya Malan-Gonzalez. He decided to show her a Christmas Carol-inspired script that he had written—and while she liked what she read, she saw yet-to-be-plumbed depths.
“My father’s play, while it’s beautiful and is really an incredible story, it really speaks to the challenges that Latinos faced in the nineties, which are different today,” says Malan-Gonzalez. “My father touched on immigration and deportation in his play, and so I kind of wanted to also touch on [questions like], Who has access to healthcare? What does gentrification look like in our communities?”
Those are some of the questions that ignited A Xmas Cuento Remix. Written by Malan-Gonzalez, the play reconfigures her father’s concept into a distinctly millennial musical that replaces Scrooge and his three ghostly mentors with a tyrannical, tormented businesswoman (who, like her Dickensian predecessor, is schooled in compassion by a series of supernatural visitations).
A Xmas Cuento Remix opened last year at Cleveland Public Theatre, 16th Street Theatre in Berwyn, Ill., and Milagro. Yet the play’s return to Milagro, where it is available online Dec. 4-31, is even more ambitious than last year’s three-pronged debut (which was the National New Play Network’s 92nd Rolling World Premiere). [UPDATE: Opening has been postponed until Dec. 11 because of technical difficulties.]
An entirely virtual production, Xmas Cuento 2020 required Malan-Gonzalez to reimagine the play for a post-COVID-19 world and direct a cast spread across the country. “It is the most insane thing I have ever done,” she says. “It has been such an honor working with these artists, seeing their tenacity, seeing how much everybody really wanted it to be the best thing it could be. Nobody was like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care, take whatever shot you get.’”
A Xmas Cuento Remix stars Veronika Nuñez as Dolores Avara, a pub owner and landlord who plans to celebrate Christmas by selling the apartments she owns, thrusting her neighborhood toward the maw of gentrification. Her journey to redemption is punctuated by a soundtrack (from the father-son composing/arranging team of Emiliano Valdez and Daniel Valdez) that fuses pop, rap, and both Spanish and English Christmas songs.
Transplanting the play’s complexities to the virtual realm meant accepting a litany of limitations. All scenes were shot during Zoom sessions (six members of the cast live in the Portland area and two live in Cleveland), with the actors using whatever equipment was available to capture their performances. (According to Malan-Gonzalez, “Some people are filming on an iPhone. Some people are filming on an iPad Surface thing. Some people have a Nikon camera or a Canon camera.”)
Merging myriad pieces into a seamless whole was the job of co-director, editor, and animator Andrés Alcalá, who also has a role in the play. “The idea right now is to try to make sure that we look like we’re all in the same environment, and that is a challenge, and I’ve been doing tests with that,” says Alcalá, who also worked his post-production magic to create fantastical images, like actors appearing to be frozen on a postcard, then bursting to life and dancing together.
Technical challenges weren’t the only obstacles that the cast and crew confronted. The pandemic loomed over rehearsals, but Malan-Gonzalez is used to emotionally nurturing her collaborators: “All of my rehearsals start with a check-in and they end with a check-out. ‘What are you coming into this room with? If you’re dealing with something, you’re dealing with something, and so let’s figure out how we can work with it. You’re not a robot. You’re a human being.’”
The majority of A Xmas Cuento Remix was filmed during five days in November. Nuñez was in a dressing room at Milagro, Alcalá was at his home in Portland (he made a trip to Milagro when the iPad filming Nuñez’s performance failed to capture audio) and Malan-Gonzalez was at her apartment in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and a pug named Sirius Black. It was the culmination of a journey that was daunting, but invigorating.
“We all say this every night when we get on our Zoom rehearsals: ‘This is the highlight of my day, getting to be with you all. Even though I’m not with you, we’re together,’” says Alcalá, who has been working with Milagro for decades and has known Malan-Gonzalez since she was a child. “Everyone’s working really hard, and I’m working extra hard. It’s affecting my personal life a little bit, but the outcome is going to be really special.”
Malan-Gonzalez’s next Milagro production is Huelga, her play about the legendary labor rights activist Dolores Huerta. Like A Xmas Cuento Remix, it’s a project that embodies her passion for cliché-obliterating art.
“We are so used to, in American theater, seeing older Latina women in roles like nurses or maids or grandmas, and I think it’s really important to see that everybody has a story—and that everybody’s story should be told and highlighted,” says Malan-Gonzalez. “Because ultimately, representation does matter, and it helps us as a society really see another world. And when we see another world, we start to gain empathy.”
- “A Xmas Cuento Remix” will be available via link Dec. 11-31. Tickets, scheduling, and access information at https://milagro.org/event/a-xmas-cuento-remix/.