She's cute. She's spunky. She can belt out a nice little pop tune. The only problem is that she's Lebanese.
For the executives at FAD Records, that's reason enough to show Hanan (Carlye Pollack) the door. ("Try not to bomb anything on your way out," one of them tells her.) But before she can leave, the label's resident Ethnic Consultant, Mary O'Malley (Melanie Salazar Case), sweeps into the room with a possible solution. Hanan, she points out, looks vaguely Latina. All this budding pop star needs is a lesson on how to think, sound, and act like the next Jennifer Lopez. And with just the slightest respelling of her name — "Hanán," perhaps? — the girl can "keep the West and forget the rest."
So opens Enrique Urueta's explosively funny, entertainingly offensive Learn to Be Latina, now making its world premiere at Impact Theatre in Berkeley. Its raunched-out storyline is like a tongue-in-asscheek episode of VH1's Behind the Music: Our doe-eyed heroine just wants to be famous, so she surrenders her ethnic identity in exchange for Latin pop stardom. After a quick rise to the top of the charts (her hits include "Touch Me Between My Taco Thighs" and "We Built This City on Rice and Beans"), she redeems herself by finally reclaiming her true identity.
Of course, most episodes of Behind the Music don't involve masturbation with a sock puppet. With Learn to Be Latina, Urueta delivers a rags-to-riches allegory that just happens to be spiked with some of the most outrageous jokes imaginable. (Think Mariah Carey's Glitter as rewritten by the guys behind South Park, and you're on the right track.) In the play's skewed version of the universe, all Latina pop stars are in fact Middle Eastern women who were trained to be more "palatably ethnic."
O'Malley's first order of business is to give Hanan a Latina Assessment Test to determine her "Latina quotient." (The test is administered as a PowerPoint presentation, which, for what it's worth, is by far the funniest PowerPoint presentation I've ever seen.) After failing miserably — she manages only to score higher than Judi Dench, Dakota Fanning, and Cameron Diaz — Hanan must endure the rigors of Latina Boot Camp, where she's given orders by a domineering sock puppet with a blond weave. ("I will give you the secret to my Latin heat," the puppet explains.) And so the play proceeds from one bizarre scenario to the next, piling on outrage after outrage to the point of near-exhaustion.
Impact is known for vigorously directed shows starring high-energy casts — if you're at all attracted to over-the-top spectacles in intimate settings, then you've found your troupe. What it sometimes lacks in polish, it makes up for in vitality (and given the choice between polish and vitality, I'll usually take the latter). In the case of Learn to Be Latina, every casting choice works, with everyone handling Urueta's rapid-fire, Diablo Cody–esque monologues beautifully. It's Case, though, who runs off with the show. Besides playing O'Malley with a dominatrix-worthy Irish brogue, she provides the voice for the foul-mouthed sock puppet, then turns up in the second act as a Latina Oprah. All of this craziness is orchestrated with great verve by Mary Guzmán, who has been developing the play with Urueta since 2005. (Not every director could pull off a stage fight with castanets as weapons, but somehow Guzmán manages.)
The play is as full of quotable lines as any show I've watched in recent memory. And where most comedies get by on one or two fragile conceits, Latina abounds with good ideas. Urueta is, in other words, an extravagantly talented comic playwright — a diabolical satirist who knows how to show audience members a great time while occasionally making them very, very uncomfortable.
And uncomfortable you will almost certainly be. If you have any sacred cows at all, prepare to see them messily slaughtered for the audience's enjoyment. In terms of my own comfort zone, I could've done without the Twin Towers pantomime, and Urueta indulges in at least one too many cracks about AIDS-related dementia. But his energy is so refreshing, and his writing so sharp, that I have a hard time begrudging him the occasional lapse into the worst possible taste. Besides, it must be said that I can't remember any play in which I found myself mouthing the words "Oh my God" with quite so much frequency.
Which isn't to say that Urueta couldn't use an editor. At two hours and 15 minutes, Latina is awfully long for a zany satire. Many of the monologues could stand to be cut, and I'm not quite sure why one character takes the time to repeat an entire speech from Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
The show's length is particularly problematic because its first half is better than its second, with the most weaknesses emerging in its most somber moments. The final scenes get bogged down in the earnestness of Hanan's redemption; for a show that takes nothing as sacred for most of its length, it's too much to ask that we suddenly get serious for the last few minutes. (Or, to put it another way: If the collapse of the World Trade Center is a fit subject for mockery, then why should a faux-Latina pop star's life lesson be any less worthy of derision?) Once Urueta figures out a way to maintain the play's subversive energy all the way to the end, he might just have a truly great work of satire on his hands.