Off-Broadway Theater Review: EMPANADA LOCA (Labyrinth Theater Company)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on October 21, 2015

in Theater-New York


Daphne Rubin-Vega delivers a riveting performance in Empanada Loca, a sinewy one-woman show written and directed by Aaron Mark. Inspired by the legend of Sweeney Todd, this dark, often comic tale of murder and cannibalism, set in gentrified Washington Heights, is told to us by its protagonist, Dolores, and begins below the deepest of abandoned subway tunnels in a small, filthy, dimly lit chamber which she has made her home. The story of how she came to live underground is what Dolores has to offer. It begins about 18 years earlier with her the 21-year-old daughter of gainfully employed working-class parents; she is a sophomore at Hunter College studying urban planning.


Family tragedy, a doomed love affair, bad luck, betrayal and prison lead to Dolores, in her late-30s, plying her skills as an unlicensed masseuse in the basement of a failing empanada shop—a holdover from pre-Starbucks New York. Through her eyes we get to see Luis, the shop’s pot-smoking owner/chef; his one employee Nelly, a 16-year-old transsexual; the building’s new hip Jewish 30-something landlord; a homeless junkie; a territorial dealer; and a Columbia student hipster. The renderings are detailed and precise yet they never go outside the lines of Dolores’s character—a testament to both the richness and subtlety of Ms. Rubin-Vega’s performance and to the discipline and intelligence of Mr. Mark’s writing.

EmpanadaLoca04(c)Monique_CarboniThe idiom “the devil is in the details” is especially true when it comes to a drama such as this one. Based on the Victorian London legend, the plot of Empanada Loca is fairly straightforward, with smooth and steady escalation, few surprises, and little in the way of revelation. After our initial shock—once we get to the, let’s say, meat of the story—what keeps our attention isn’t so much the what but the how. How things happen, how characters react, how they go about doing what they need to do—that is what’s interesting about them and the world they inhabit. Here too Mr. Mark does not disappoint—details are plentiful, evocative, pointed, and never distracting or overwrought. Also admirable is how quickly he gets us to sympathize with Dolores; we are immediately intrigued by her and want to know everything she has to tell us. In fact it’s possible he gets us to sympathize with her a little too much, at the expense of other characters, as no matter what she does or whom she does it to, we always want her to win.

EmpanadaLoca03(c)Monique_Carboniphotos by Monique Carboni

Empanada Loca
Labyrinth Theater Company
Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank St
ends on November 8, 2015
EXTENDED to November 15, 2015
for tickets, call 212.513.1080
or visit Lab Theater

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