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A CurtainUp Review
Empanada Loca
By Charles Wright

Woulda been you or me, honey. You or me.
— Dolores, explaining the modus operandi of her life in a subway tunnel in Empanada Loca
Daphne Rubin-Vega(Photo: Monique Carboni
Empanada Loca, the Grand Guignol concoction brewing at the Labyrinth Theater Company this Halloween season, is a nine-character thriller in which Daphne Rubin-Vega plays all the roles. Playwright Aaron Mark has written a script that starts at high velocity and accelerates, under his deft direction, with NASCAR force. Anyone skeptical about one-actor productions should take note: Empanada Loca consists of 95 minutes in which spectators are unlikely to feel any urge to consult their timepieces.

The play takes its title from a fictional lunchroom on the far Upper West Side of Manhattan. The place is a hole in the wall where, for three decades, Luis's family has served a rotating menu of empanadas to a working-class clientele. Now Luis is middle-aged, on his own following the death of his parents, and living in the basement of the restaurant. The building's new landlord, ambitious to keep pace with neighborhood gentrification, has raised the rent and is threatening eviction because Luis is in arrears.

That's when Dolores, just released from prison, happens on the scene. Dolores was a regular patron of Empanada Loca before being banished for 13 years, on drug and assault convictions, to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. Now Luis is the only person in the old neighborhood who recognizes her, and she wants to help him.

By accident (sort of), Dolores discovers a solution (of sorts) that inspires Luis to create a mysterious new empanada — Muy Loco. His culinary innovation is an immediate hit with customers and what follows is a series of events as gruesome and sordid as any ever portrayed on a New York stage.

The playwright has said that Empanada Loca was inspired by The String of Pearls, the pulp novel (or penny dreadful), serialized in 1846, which introduced the world to Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. Anyone familiar with the Todd story can guess something of what goes on in Mark's play. No one is likely to predict the precise twists and turns of the ghoulish narrative (and there are no spoilers here).

At the Bank Street Theater, where Empanada Loca is playing, all seats are close to the stage. The intimacy of the space, Bradley King's dim lighting, and David Meyer's no-distractions set work together as effectively as a zoom lens to focus spectators' attention on Rubin-Vega. Her detailed performance, which appears spontaneous throughout, captures both the surface rationality and the subterranean disorder of bright, psychotically manipulative Dolores.

Like Robert O'Hara's Barbecue (currently at the Public Theatre) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Gloria (at the Vineyard last summer), Empanada Loca knocks its audience for a loop with surprises. But there's a difference. O'Hara and Jacobs-Jenkins are masters of exhilaratingly contrived hairpin turns in narrative. Barbecue and Gloria are fueled by their authors' outlandish imaginations.

There's little or no contrivance in Empanada Loca. Everything appalling in the script is integrally related to Dolores's pathological demeanor. She's a character intricately yet efficiently developed by the insightful dramatist. To a playgoer who's attentive throughout, even the most extreme elements of Dolores's story are dramaturgically organic and believable.

Empanada Loca takes place at a point when Dolores has been living in an abandoned train tunnel under Manhattan for several weeks to escape what might befall her at ground level. Mark's script is all talk (at least until the final scene), but it's the most active talk imaginable. And while Dolores merely reminisces, Rubin-Vega makes those recollections vivid, dramatic, and scarily present tense.

Empanada Loca by Aaron Mark

Director: Aaron Mark
Cast: Daphne Rubin-Vega (Dolores)
Scenic Design: David Meyer
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Assistant Director/Costume Advisor: Michael Growler
Production Manager/Technical Director: Sean Gorski
Production Stage Manager: Lily Perlmutter
Running Time: 95 minutes without intermission
Presented by Labyrinth Theater Company (Mimi O'Donnell, Artistic Director; Danny Feldman, Executive Director)
Bank Street Theater, 354 West 45th Street
From 9/30/15; opened 10/21/15; closes 11/15/15/
Reviewed by Charles Wright at an October 16th press performance
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