'Empanada' is filled with laughter and pain

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By Doug Deuchler

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There are one-person shows in which a performer impersonates a colorful or historical individual, like Mark Twain, Harry Truman, Emily Dickinson or Clarence Darrow. Then there are solo performances in which an actor presents personal autobiographical storytelling, such as Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale. 16th Street Theater's new production, Empanada for a Dream, written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa, is poignant and passionate example of the latter.

Villa is a talented solo storyteller. For 80 non-stop minutes, he vividly impersonates multiple characters, from childhood family friends to his buddies in the drug-infested streets. It's an amazingly vivid memoir set in the Lower East Side of New York City when he was growing up poor as the son of Colombian immigrants in a mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican "Caribbean-dominated" neighborhood.

Villa shares warm and fuzzy recollections of his childhood and early family life in the 1980s. But many of his relatives are dangerously involved in the Colombian drug cartel. As one by one, his big-hearted, cocaine-dealer relatives die violently or disappear into prison for decades, the young boy experiences a brutal realization of the dark and dangerous secrets within his family. All his beloved uncles, responsible for both horrific murders and heart-warming good deeds, fail to live past 33.

16th Street Theater in Berwyn, known for mounting works that encourage "debate, discussion, and compassion," is co-producing this show with Teatro Vista, a Chicago company that celebrates Latino writing and culture. It is their 23rd season. The mission of Teatro Vista is to bridge the gap between Latino and non-Latino cultures, and to break down the prejudice and stereotypes that stand in the way of cultural understanding.

This well-performed, swiftly-paced memoir, directed by Alex Levy, is both harrowing and hilarious. With impeccable comic timing, Villa is consistently highly energized as he embodies at least eight different characters, including his strict, witch-like mother. There are many laugh-out-loud moments.

The play takes its title from the tasty meat-filled pastries that his mother baked for special, almost legendary occasions. With great joy and nostalgia Villa shares the joy and comfort that Colombian traditions and his family provided. There are also disturbing episodes that illustrate the cycle of violence Villa ultimately manages to escape.

Author and performer Villa says, "My life has been full of fear. The destruction that my family caused made me doubt how the world worked. As an adult, I felt the need to face these fears, embrace them and take control of them."

Juan Francisco Villa is an extremely gifted and engaging performer. He makes eye contact with many audience members, which further heightens this thrilling performance. He also never holds back as he makes his colorful, chaotic early life come alive. He stimulates uproarious laughter, then suddenly touches us deeply with his gripping, painful reflections.

The production is nicely enhanced by Christopher Kriz, USA's sound effects and Mac Vaughey's lighting design. The stage manager is Jennifer Aparicio.

Spanish dialogue is occasionally dropped into the narrative, yet the storyline is never difficult to follow.

The timeline of Empanada for a Dream gets blurry at a few points, but the intensity of Villa's gut-wrenching storytelling keeps this combination of comedy and tragedy from ever becoming confusing or disorienting. We are fortunate to have a production of this caliber playing so close to our community.

Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.

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