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Maria Russell, Diana Yanez and Sandra Valls in Latina Christmas Special at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. (Photo by Xavi Moreno)
Maria Russell, Diana Yanez and Sandra Valls in Latina Christmas Special at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. (Photo by Xavi Moreno)

Latina Christmas Special

Reviewed by Jenny Lower
Los Angeles Theater Center
Through January 7

First performed in 2013, the Latino Theater Company’s Latina Christmas Special reunites three comedians — Diana Yanez, Sandra Valls and Maria Russell — who recount their personal tales of Navidades past. Created by Yanez and co-written by the performers, this latest iteration appears not to have changed since the show’s first mounting. (I gather this from reading other reviews, as this is my first time seeing the show.) While there is much to love here, the material would benefit from some tightening and refreshing to make it more effective.

Directed by Geoffrey Rivas, the program consists of three one-woman narratives strung together with interstitial jokes and chatter, with each performer coming forward to share her individual blend of Moth-style storytelling and standup humor. The beloved diva daughter of a doting mother, the half-Mexican, half-Lithuanian Russell shares her childhood penchant for age-inappropriate performances at family gatherings, a la Sex Bomb. Cuban-American Yanez recounts how her struggling immigrant parents reshaped Donny-and-Marie-Osmond-wholesome notions of “white” Christmas for their Miami home, giftwrapping everything from dollar-store toys to bananas. And Mexican-American Valls, a tomboy in childhood, describes the perpetual letdown of always receiving girlie gifts before segueing into the most moving narrative of the evening — holidays spent caring for her mother who suffered from a degenerative, paralyzing terminal illness. Projections of family photos and shaky home videos lend these accounts a moving intimacy. 

These culturally rich, highly specific stories have universal echoes that make them engaging for audience members of any background. That’s why it’s frustrating when the performers get in their own way by belaboring so-so jokes when a snappier pace would make the show more vital. The night I attended, the audience was thick with packs of girlfriends gabbing and drinking and ready to laugh. But the guffaws were slow to come at first, especially in the plodding opening section. At times, the performers seemed to pause expectantly for laughs that didn’t come. (Some lame sexual innuendo involving the word “taint” was among the riffs that fell flat). During each woman’s stand-alone section, the other two recede into the background. This technique lets each comic take her moment in the spotlight, but it also deprives the performers of the opportunity to play off each other, which can come off feeling dramatically inert.

Yee Eun Nam’s too-literal projections often reiterate rather than enhance what happens onstage (a gross-out close-up of a wriggling cockroach is definitely better left to the imagination.) Most of the action takes place under a cold white light that flattens the performances and dissipates the cozy holiday feeling Michael Navarro’s set works so hard to achieve.

Even with these drawbacks, the performances build in humor and effectiveness. Valls’ poignant account of her mother’s illness and final piano piece moved me to tears. Distilling the show through editing and reshaping would ensure that the other vignettes pack as much of a punch.

 

Latino Theater Company at LATC; 514 S. Spring St, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. 8 p.m.; and Monday, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. (866) 811-4111 or www.latc.org; Running time: approximately 110 minutes with no intermission.

 

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