Daphne Rubin-Vega stars in a terrifying new adaptation of Sweeney Todd.
If you're looking for a scary play to see this Halloween, you could do no better than Aaron Mark's Empanada Loca, now making its world premiere with Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater. It takes place in a grungy, abandoned room deep beneath the New York City subway where we meet Dolores (an astonishing Daphne Rubin-Vega), a woman on the run from the law. Is she a harmless pawn or a deluded psychopath? If you dare to stick around long enough, you just might find out.
Returned to Washington Heights following a lengthy drug sentence, Dolores finds the neighborhood completely transformed by gentrification: bodegas replaced by banks and trendy espresso bars. The area is crawling with Columbia University students. The only thing that remains is Empanada Loca, a local eatery hanging on despite the astronomical rents charged by the new landlord. The proprietor, Luis, remembers buying weed from Dolores when he was a teen and he offers her a space to open a massage parlor (she became very good with her hands when she was in prison). This becomes a deadly partnership when Luis concocts a cannibalistic symbiosis: Some of Dolores' customers never come out alive while Luis wows the hip denizens of WaHI with his new "Muy Loco Empanada."
Fans of musical theater will immediately recognize the legend of Sweeney Todd: Dolores is Sweeney, Luis is Mrs. Lovett, and a transgender teen named Nellie is Toby. Writer and director Mark transplants this tale of vengeance and cutthroat capitalism to the brutal realm of 21st-century Manhattan real estate, leading to myriad little revelations about the story and our everyday urban lives — they're not as incompatible as one might think.
As the director of Ben Rimalower's long-running show Patti Issues, Mark has a lot of experience using the unique voice of an actor to create a compelling solo performance. He employs the same magic here with Rubin-Vega, to thrilling result: Her diction is startlingly authentic as she overenunciates the word "literally" and lightly peppers her sentences with the ever-useful Spanglish conjunction "pero." She draws us into her world, creating a universe with her vivid descriptions. We can see everything she describes.
Bradley King's intimate and shadowy ghost-story lighting (several incandescent light bulbs in a ring above the stage) makes us feel like we really are deep beneath the subway, especially when set against David Meyer's set of dirty industrial steel and concrete. The first minute is set completely in the dark, making us feel incredibly vulnerable as our eyes adjust. Ryan Rumery's less-is-more sound design yields the floor to Rubin-Vega: We only hear the sound of a distant train near the end. We're hopelessly lost in the bowels of New York City with a murderer yet we can't tear ourselves away from her utterly transfixing story.
Despite sounding innocuously like somewhere to have brunch in Hell's Kitchen, Empanada Loca is a real hair-raiser. Anyone looking for a good fright won't want to miss it, but beware: This show is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.