The Empress and El Diablo
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 16, 2012
I'm a strong believer in listening for signals from the Universe—not fate, exactly, but rather a receptiveness to opportunities that await you as you make decisions, big or small, about your life. This is the theme of Jonathan Barsness's new play The Empress & El Diablo, which is currently being premiered by Toy Box Theatre Company. Sometimes whimsical and more often serious and naturalistic, the play examines what happens when a young man searches for answers and then fails to hear them clearly.
The inspiration for Barsness's story is the myth of Oedipus. Here, our protagonist is Eddie, who has just quit his non-remunerative architecture internship and has no immediate career prospects. He and his long-term girlfriend, Maggie, are about to move into the apartment below his parents' (with their help) and he is swallowing his pride and joining his father in the family contracting business. Before doing all of this, though, Eddie pays a visit to a Seer, who lays out the Tarot cards and sees...well, pretty much the Oedipus story: Eddie is going marry his mother and kill his father. Also in the layout is the Fool card, represented by a young man setting out on a journey. What will Eddie find in this fortune telling?
The rest of the play shows us the path Eddie chooses, and it's fraught with missteps. He and his girlfriend are frequently at odds but move forward with their relationship in significant ways. Eddie and his dad, Larry, are like water and oil at work—we see their very opposite styles in action in a few scenes with Emily, a young woman who is considering hiring their firm for a big renovation job. And Eddie's mom, Peg, is his indulgent enabler as he tries to cope with his circumstances.
Barsness's script is effective and all six actors are fine—Jake Paque is extremely likeable as Eddie, Glory Gallo and Gary Ray Bugarcic are convincing and have great chemistry as his parents, Jessica Giannone makes the most of Maggie (a somewhat underwritten role), Juan Luis Acevedo is suitably enigmatic as the Seer, and Karen Stanion gives one of her trademark exuberant, charming, slightly daffy performances as the real outsider in the piece, would-be client Emily.
But Barsness's direction of his play is less effective. I felt like he favored the darker shadings, so that the script came across as more serious and less humorous than intended. And one key decision—to include a good deal of music (written and performed live by Toy Box's frequent collaborator Colonna Sonora) in the transitions between scenes—is detrimental to the proceedings, constantly slowing down the action and damaging the show's momentum.
What's most interesting about the play is the way that Barsness manages to subvert our expectations, given the source material, to draw some conclusions about a blindness more common than and quite different from the one that was Oedipus's ultimate fate. Like his earlier adaptation of Woyzeck, The Empress & El Diablo transforms a canonical work into something contemporary and pertinent.