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Review: ‘Empanada For A Dream’ at 1st Stage

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Proust may have had his mother’s madeleine, but Juan Francisco Villa has his mother’s empanada to stir up memories of his gritty, hard scrabble childhood in New York’s City’s Lower East Side. It was a traumatic childhood like few others I have witnessed on local stages. Villa’s Empanada for a Dream at 1st Stage is an honest, defiant, unnerving autobiographical journey. The production is part of the 1st Stage Logan Festival of Solo Performance.

Juan Francisco Villa in Empanada for a Dream. Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

Under Alex Levy’s solid, boldly wrought, documentary style direction and Juan Francisco Villa’s gripping, restless, solo performance portraying multiple characters, I was mesmerized with a visceral presentention of one man’s resilience under incredibly tough circumstances. It left me in awe of Villa, who lived and survived growing up in a neighborhood during the major drug wars that engulfed many a city in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s.

Empanada for a Dream is about way more than once-again tasting his mom’s cooking. For playwright and performer Villa, the dream was also to live beyond the age of 33 and move out of his neighborhood; not into a coffin. As Villa says in the performance, “a lot of people in this neighborhood have died.”

The 1st Stage production begins with Villa nervously introducing himself from the top of the aisles. He walks down slowly, cautiously eyeing the audience. Then, like a track athlete, he bounds onto the stage to colorfully and intensely relive his earlier life, when he was living at 169 Allen Street, New York City. It is a rumbling tale that comes out of his brain and voice like a rocket.

Juan Francisco Villa in Empanada for a Dream. Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

On the stage, he ably represents any number of absorbing characters and, also, is his own “looking back” narrator for the proceedings. Villa is his own 8-year-old self, living in a tight-knit, extended immigrant family from Colombia. He is full of nervous energy, large movements and a desire for McDonald’s cheeseburgers for his birthday and watching white bread television heroes such as Sam Malone (Cheers) and Mike Seaver (Growing Pains). The next scene is an older self, witnessing the brutality that comes with fight-to-the-finish drug turf wars. At other moments he represents memories of his mother as a comic witch-like vision. She is a woman he finds way too protective. And with too strong a believe in God’s power to punish.

With a neighborhood full of characters that provide amusing comic relief, Villa also portrays his cocaine king-pin uncles as they matter-of-factly describe both loving their little nephew and some incredible violence. His work as tough-minded uncles and neighbors spares no softening. Empanada for a Dream is no West Side Story, with music swelling, spirited dancing, and clicking fingers masking harsh conditions. As portrayed by Villla, the cocaine-dealing uncles would give Al Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana in Scarface a run for the money.

Alex Levy’s direction and Juan Francisco Villa’s rapid speech and movement are hard-hitting and eye-popping. There are moments when a backstory seems glossed over. There were also moments when I wanted to turn away from the tragic, random, abstract word-filled depictions of rough lives unfolding before me. That would have been my loss if I had.

Adding enormously to the overall dark mood of the production were its design elements. Credit goes to Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago and Sound Designer Christopher Kriz. (the set itself is un-credited). Stepping into the performance area of 1st Stage, I had a personal moment of prayerfulness as if I were in the dark interior of classic church with votive candles burning at the stations of the cross. Then as the play progressed, the same set design felt as if I were spying on an informal road-side memorial for loved-ones who had died on that spot. And often enough, in a flash, Villa made the set his old Lower East Side neighborhood, a place for him to move and bound about as a lively little boy.

Juan Francisco Villa in Empanada for a Dream. Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

As I left the production of Empanada for a Dream, I wanted to know from the playwright about Villa’s backstory. How did he survive what others from the same neighborhood did not? What made him not follow the path of his drug boss uncles or his friends who died young? What made him so brave? What made him so resilient? But that is another play.

See Empanada for a Dream. Just don’t go expecting sugar coating. There is no evasion in the 1st Stage production. And that is a good thing for those who sometimes like their theater experiences a bit bolder than more timid theater.

The 1st Stage Logan Festival of Solo Performance production of Empanada for a Dream is a haunting portrait of one neighborhood, of one extended family, and of one man’s journey. There is much to learn about the world we inhabit together in the production. Don’t be put off by its toughness.

Running time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Empanada for a Dream plays through July 15, 2017 at 1st Stage – 524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

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