Intense ‘Empanada’ needs focus on family failings
‘Empanada For a Dream’
16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn
7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, through March 16
Visit www.16thstreettheater.org or call (708) 795-6704
Updated: February 20, 2013 12:30PM
Juan Francisco Villa has a fascinating story to tell in “Empanada for a Dream.”
The nephew of first generation Colombian immigrants and prominent coke dealers, he grew up rough on New York City’s Lower East side, revering relatives he eventually came to realize were mass murderers and purveyors of the indescribable pain that results from addiction. That he made it out of his tough, violent family business and parlayed a lifetime of fear, guilt and violent conflict into a career in teaching in performance is a stupendous accomplishment.
But in tracing his troubled upbringing in “Empanada for a Dream,” he never presents his criminal family members as anything more than broad, vague outlines. And the means of his triumph over an environment where virtually every man he knew died before the age of 34 is never really explored.
Instead, “Empanada for a Dream” — written and performed by Villa and directed by Alex Levy — focuses on anecdotes that could have been plucked from any number of tales from troubled childhood: A demanding (and apparently hunchbacked, to judge from Villa’s posture,) mother for whom nothing was ever good enough, loving uncles who treated him to (too many) cheeseburgers on his birthday, rollicking dance parties where everyone had too much to drink, reading comic books on reefer-fueled visits to the local park with a blacksheep relative. It’s a generic tale of a troubled youth.
When Villa, in molto hair-rending anguish mode, screams that his uncles had killed “multiple, multiple men” you want to know much more about these uncles.
But Villa never gets into the personalities or circumstances that allowed his immediate family to become “big drug cartels.” Nor do we get much insight into Villa’s gradual coming-of-age realization that his immediate family was responsible for so much death and destruction.
The uncles he revered remain ciphers, largely because Villa takes shortcuts with his poetic writing: “Everything changed” after the death of Tio Chepe, but what that “everything” entails remains largely unexamined. We hear about the crippling guilt and fear Villa experienced as a young man, but very little about the source of that guilt and fear.
Also hampering “Emapanda for a Dream” is the fever pitch Villa maintains throughout. His anguish hits a shouting pitch early on, leaving him nowhere to go as the intensity of the piece ostensibly increases. His delivery teeters from shrill to chest-pounding confessional and back to shrill.
There’s a story here, and there’s no denying the passion of his delivery and the poetry of his writing. But for “Empanada” to work dramatically, we need to know a lot more about the familial source of his pain.