Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Live play review: “Learn to Be Latina” (Diversionary Theatre, 2011)

Diversionary’s Comic Romp


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Learn to Be Latina, Diversionary Theatre’s current production, is a comic romp that’s funny and entertaining start-to-finish. Enrique Urueta’s script is a satire on so many sacred cows that when Diversionary’s production finally opened for previews on November 13 — two days late, mostly because it took longer than expected to work out the show’s elaborate choreography — John Alexander, the theatre’s executive director, announced at the beginning, “If you’re not offended, it means we haven’t done our job.” Directed by Iris Saratial Misdary at a whirlwind pace that forces us to accept Urueta’s stylized plotting and character setting without giving us time to pick it apart for dramatic inconsistencies, Learn to Be Latina is a delightful skewering of our common notions of fame, ethnicity and sexual identity that leaves a lot of sacred cows butchered in its wake.
It begins in the offices of Funky Artists’ Development (the initials F.A.D. are prominently displayed on the back wall of Matt Scott’s effectively stylized set), a record company where three identically dressed executives, Bill (Dangerfield G. Moore), Will (Steve Smith) and Jill (Amanda Cooley Davis), are looking for the Next Big Thing. A potential Next Big Thing arrives in the person of Hanan Mashalani (Tamara Dhia), a Boston native and recent graduate of William and Mary College in Virginia, from which she emerged with a theatre arts degree, a heavy-duty student-loan debt, and a demo CD produced for her by a boyfriend who became an ex-boyfriend when she caught him in his dorm room taking it up the ass from a guy who, just to mix up the signals a bit further, Hanan thought had a cute ass of his own.
Hanan is also burdened with a problematic ethnicity. Though she’s U.S.-born, her parents were immigrants from Beirut, and in the post-9/11 era Lebanese = Arab = terrorist. One of the show’s funniest scenes, in fact, is a bizarre parody of post-9/11 stereotyping in which Bill, Will and Jill immediately switch their perception of Hanan from potential dance diva to potential suicide bomber, hiding under their desk in cowering fear when she tries to fetch her bag and doing an hilarious re-enactment of the attack on the World Trade Center. So they call in the company’s fearsome “ethnic consultant,” Mary O’Malley, MBA, Ph.D. (Faeren Adams), who’s so scary that in Keven Anthenill’s sound design her entrance is heralded by the opening of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. What happens next will be obvious to anyone who’s bothered to notice what the play is called, but Urueta teases us with it for several minutes until O’Malley finally blurts it out. Hanan, it seems, is “the wrong shade of brown,” but that can be dealt with if only she can — you guessed it — “learn to be Latina!”
The ethnic remodeling includes a name change — the brain trust at F.A.D. decide that if they just drop Hanan’s last name and put an accent over the second vowel in her first, “Hanán,” she’ll sound suitably Latina — plus Spanish lessons from O’Malley’s omnipresent hand puppet Calcetina (who speaks in an accent Adams seems to have got from watching Lupe Vélez’s old “Mexican Spitfire” movies) and a multiple-choice test designed to measure her “Latina I.Q.” The test questions, projected for us in PowerPoint, have some of the same ridiculous ethnic stereotyping that’s made Gustavo Arellano’s syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!” a delight. The one person in the F.A.D. operation they don’t turn to for how-to-be-a-Latina advice is the one genuine Latina present, “office bitch” Blanca (Olivia Espinosa), who not only has the real ethnicity Hanán is trying to adopt but also has a raging crush on her (well, it’s a Diversionary production so there had to be Queer characters in it somewhere!) and wins her heart — or at least her body — through their shared interest in an obscure 1980’s TV show called Gem.
Learn to Be Latina is performed in two acts, and needless to say, during the intermission Hanán skyrockets from unknown to instant superstar. Her first single, a remake of an obscure dance tune called “Latin Heat” by 1980’s mini-phenom La Juana (who didn’t even last long enough to be a one-day wonder: she went from fame in the morning to obscurity by noon), soars to the top of the charts. So does her first album, which Urueta almost inevitably saddles with the ironic title For Real. She’s still unhappy, though, not only because the star-making machinery is carrying her farther and farther away from who she wanted to be and what sort of music she wanted to make but also because she has to live in mortal fear of being “outed” as a Lebanese, a Lesbian or both. It all comes to a head the night she’s scheduled to appear on the Grammy Awards, and …
Along with the laughs, Learn to Be Latina offers scathing social commentary on the transitory nature of fame and the extent to which we accept blatantly false and transparently silly tales about celebrities. Sometimes we take these corporation-created figures to our hearts, sometimes we want to burn them at the stake (“You Americans!” Rudolph Valentino complained in 1923, “You build up stars just for the fun of tearing them down”), and sometimes we follow them with the same sick fascination with which we watch auto accidents (what else were we doing with Michael Jackson for the last decade of his life?). We’re willing to accept what the corporate machine tells us they are, then we react with ferocity and rage when we find out they’re not like that at all.
The characters in Learn to Be Latina change ethnicities — or at least ethnic signifiers — at the drop of a thin dime. Their sexual orientations are equally malleable, as they are in real life and aren’t in the “born that way” mythology of the Queer mainstream (ironically the exit music is Lady Gaga’s recent hit of that title!). From the moment they’re introduced we’re told that Bill is married (heterosexually) and Will is Gay, but throughout the play there’s a running gag of them sneaking out of the office together — when one has to go to the bathroom, the other always accompanies him — for reasons we figure out in a microsecond even though the other characters remain oblivious to the end. The ethnic masquerades continue when Hanán gets booked for an interview on Elena — she’s called “the Latina Oprah” and that’s how Faeran Adams, who doubles the role, plays her — and gets confronted with a photo of herself and Blanca making out. “I’m not Lebanese! And I’m not a Lesbian, either!” Hanán blurts out, thanks to a playwright delighting in the similar sound of the words for both her forbidden identities.
Learn to Be Latina is really a tour de force for the women in the cast. Though she isn’t given an opportunity to perform as a singer or dance diva — and therefore we’re never sure whether Hanán is a genuinely talented musician being forced into a rancid commercial mold or a no-talent being built up into manufactured stardom (i.e., whether she’s Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears) — Tamara Dhia is fully the mistress of her role. She superbly manages the transition from scared wanna-be to frustrated superstar, babbling her lines at rapid-fire pace as the former and managing the spaced-out look and demeanor of the latter. She’s matched superbly by Adams, who as O’Malley is a really formidable and relentless villain; and by Espinosa, who as the one truly likable character in the whole piece supplies the earth-mother grounding Urueta clearly intended. Espinosa is also credited as “dance captain,” whatever that means, while Anna Sarao gets a choreography credit; they both deserve accolades for getting non-dancers to move as to the manner born.
Matt Scott’s set design is simple and effective, though it works better in the first act than the second. Michelle Caron’s lighting is functional and appropriate, though she’s not as challenged as she would have been if the script had included an actual Hanán performance. Raquel Barreto’s costume designs include appropriately sleazy outfits for Dhia to wear as the public Hanán, a forbidding black pantsuit for O’Malley, and entertainingly unisex business drag for Bill, Will and Jill. Luke Olson’s “projection design” offers engaging PowerPoint shows that satirize business presentations. Sound designer Kevin Anthenill seems to have a collection of virtually every mediocre dance record made in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and he even makes the overused Carmina Burana music work. Learn to Be Latina is a start-to-finish delight whose satire steals in on you while you’re busy laughing at its more outrageous gags, and Diversionary has done it full justice in this engaging production.

Learn to Be Latina runs through Sunday, December 18 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays (except November 24) through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (no evening performance November 20). Tickets $31 Thursdays & Sundays, $33 Fridays and Saturdays. For tickets and other information, call (619) 220-0097 or visit www.diversionary.org