Despite all the glitter, dancing and chiseled, half-nude men, Love in the Time of Piñatas, performed by Baruch Porras Hernandez and directed by Epic Party Theatre’s Richard A. Mosqueda is, at its core, a quiet, intimate play about queer immigrant identity. It’s a scripted performance that never compromises its free-form, off-the-cuff energy. Structured around defining stories and memories of Hernandez’s life, Piñatas is sprinkled with segments of poetry, singing, piñata puppetry, stray thoughts from Hernandez—including a brief meditation on the existentialism of rim jobs—and even a mid-show donut break with a Q&A.
The play, at ZSpace through December 22, follows Hernandez’s life of humiliation and identity-rejection, from his early childhood as a Rainbow Brite devotee in Toluca, Mexico, through his self-hating, eating-disordered 20s as a struggling actor in the Bay Area, up to present day. Piñatas are, unsurprisingly, a key feature and emblem of the journey. The stage is draped in them and the play kicks off with an amusing but overlong puppet show featuring them. Horrible birthdays are a common theme throughout Baruch’s life. The piñata is an apt metaphor – a delicate, beautiful thing built for ritual destruction according to the unfeeling whims of others.
The flashiness of Hernandez’s wardrobe, comprised of sequin coats, fishnets and metallic gold hot pants, creates a profound contrast to the pain and vulnerability performed by the man beneath them. Baruch is still undoubtedly a charismatic performer, but his presence comes from his low-key conversational style that is at odds with his costume, the stage design and the jockstrap-wearing go-go dancers. These elements serve as a celebration of self-determination, the embrace of doing and reveling in what makes you happy.
Toward the end of the show, Baruch laments the pornography of suffering that marks many immigrant stories and his performance functions as the antithesis of this type of narrative. His stories, while often powerful and heartbreaking, eschew shocking trauma for a more universal human pain.
However, much of what is personal and unique about the tone and rhythm of Piñatas is also what hurts some of its momentum. Many of the stories are so direct and meaningful that some of the less-polished or more extemporaneous segments come across as diffuse and indulgent in the wrong way. When we see the power he’s able to channel when discussing the dissolution of his parents’ relationship, his gradual reconciliation with his loving but toxic father, and a particularly stirring memory of his family’s first trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, it makes some of the early tales and digressions feel less immediate. When he can so skillfully capture some of the racial and class divides between him and his middle school classmates during a traumatic birthday in the Berkeley Hills, some of his Trump jokes and pontificating on the sins of ICE feel less specific and meaningful.
Baruch has developed the show over many years, most recently with Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Ground Floor Summer Residency and, as a result, it has the thematic clarity of a piece that’s been fine-tuned and revisited. It’s a wholly original work that captures the many facets of its performer’s soul. Despite some unevenness and the occasional loss of focus, Love in the Time of Piñatas is a captivating testament to one man’s tale of taking the whacks of life and surviving to reclaim what was once used against him.