Wednesday, October 21, 2015

85. Review: EMPANADA LOCA (seen October 21, 2015)

"A Dog Eat Dog, Man Eat Man World"
Stars range from 5-1.

Just before the start of EMPANADA LOCA, Aaron Mark’s bleak and grisly (or should that be gristly?) solo piece starring the exceptional Daphne Rubin-Vega, the deafening roar of a subway train shakes the rafters (Ryan Rumery did the sound). Then, from the blackness on the unlit stage, we hear a woman’s voice asking us who’s there, wondering if it’s a cop, claiming she can see like a cat and hear like a bat, and threatening to get whoever it is right between the eyes. Softening her tone, she adds, “I don’t wanna jump to any conclusions. I’m not that kind of person.”

Well, given the story she’s about to tell us, that personal assessment may not be very accurate; on the other hand, just what kind of person she is remains, like the performance itself, somewhat in the dark. One thing you can say for sure, though, is she’s a survivor. The woman, wearing a dark hoody, steps from the shadows, and turns on a hanging string of four or five naked lightbulbs, barely illuminating her living quarters deep in the bowels of the New York subway system. The person she’s speaking to is us, imagined as a fellow subterranean who’s somehow found her hiding spot, and to whom—presumably because of her need for human contact—she’s soon spilling her guts, in a manner of speaking, about how she came to be here.
Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Mr. Mark, who also directed this Labyrinth Theater production, has written a challenging 95-minute monologue loosely inspired by the “legend of Sweeney Todd,” a story, of course, that goes back much further than Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical version.  With Halloween fast approaching, its timing couldn't be better. In Mr. Mark’s telling, Ms. Rubin-Vega is Dolores, who recounts her experiences from the time when, while studying city planning at Hunter College, she falls in love and moves in with Dominic, a guy in Washington Heights dealing weed. One thing leads to another, she’s arrested for possession with intent to sell and assault on a police officer, and sent to prison for 13 years. Dominic, meanwhile, disappears off the face of the earth.
Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Monique Carboni.
On her release she returns to her old Washington Heights haunts, now in the midst of gentrification. Unable to find Dominic, she’s taken in by Luis, who had a crush on her when he was a kid, and who runs his late father’s empanada shop with the help of a 16-year-old transsexual, Nellie. Hanging about is the wreck of a homeless man, with ruined skin and teeth, who will play a significant part in Dolores’s experiences.

To earn money, Dolores, who learned how to give massages while in prison, becomes an unlicensed masseuse, working out of Luis’s basement. When Jonah, the young Jewish landlord, threatens Luis with eviction, Dolores takes matters into her own hands, so to speak. Luis, discovering a body of new ingredients, uses them to make a tasty new recipe that has his “muy loco” empanadas flying off the shelf. But, as in the original story, a steady supply of meat is needed. From here on, the story concerns Dolores and Luis’s gruesome activities, their sexual encounters, and her ultimate need to seek refuge from the law, which leads to her life among the mole people in the city’s underbelly.
Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Ms. Rubin-Vega, a two-time Tony nominee, tells her story on David Meyer’s grungy, barely visible set, so dimly lit by Bradley King that the actor’s cheekbones, especially when shrouded by the hoody, look as gaunt as those on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” There’s very little movement, and much of the time she sits on the massage table that dominates the space. Speaking in a slightly gravelly voice, with a convincing street accent, she changes her voice for each of the people in the story, ranging fluently from one emotional level to the other, and giving the impression of a reasonable, well-meaning person who somehow got caught up in a world where certain actions were necessary and, no matter how horrible, had to be done with a minimum of fuss or regret. Her tale includes both unsettlingly gory images and crudely direct language about Luis’s sexual appetites, shall we say, all of it delivered as if what she's disclosing is no different from talking about what she did last summer.  

The events depicted in EMPANADA LOCA are exaggerated and improbable, but Mr. Mark’s super-colloquial, vulgarity-riddled language gives them the air of reality, an effect greatly amplified by Ms. Rubin-Vega’s totally committed, natural, and accessible performance.
Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Monique Carboni.

The weakest moments come at the very end, when something aiming to be shocking shifts the narrative from the storytelling mode, where events are seen in our imagination, to the actual; no matter how realistic it may seem, it’s impossible to avoid artificiality and, in this instance, the nervous laughter it inspires. Mr. Mark is off the mark here, and should rethink how he ends the play. Ms. Rubin-Vega’s artistry deserves it.

Show Score

Bank Street Theater
155 Bank Street, NYC
Through November 8