Growing up in the deep corners of the city doesn’t mean you’re safe from gentrification. Look at skyrocketing rents, new restaurants and condos replacing memories of what-used-to-be-there, and transient, aloof neighbors with their unempathetic enterprising. It’s a disaster that surely and slowly is happening. Empanada Loca, the inaugural play from new theater group Recondite Tourist Activities, examines that disaster, depositing itself in a deeper corner brimming with betrayal and trifling, toxic consumerism.
The show opens in the dark. You can’t see Dolores (played by Rachel O'Hanlon-Rodriguez), but she can see you. She’s not sure what to make of you, though. Are you a cop? she repeats in trepidation laced with agony to connect. We quickly learn just how lonely Dolores is, and how she’s been holding on to a story that she’s dying for someone to listen to. She’s not okay living alone in the abandoned tunnels under Washington Heights in New York City, even though she says she does just fine in her new home.
Luckily, it’s only you who’s come to listen.
Seeing the light
When the dim tungsten light comes on, Dolores reveals herself. In a hoodie hiding much of her face at first, she’s enthusiastic about her space, particularly the massage table that she carried with her from the scene of many crimes that happened at one of the last family businesses standing: Empanada Loca.
Dolores’s dialogue first unravels a story about a young love she had while she took care of her father, a troubled, indulgent man who died from choking on his own vomit. That’s when things start to get plainly gritty. When the young love falls apart, Dolores’s life spirals into a twisted mess that reveals far more about the people around her than herself.
This includes the people who have invaded and gentrified her neighborhood since she was gone, locked away for something she hadn’t done.
Empanada Loca still stood, though, giving her a chance at redemption on the coattails of the new populace, who just love these crazy, unusual empanadas.
Kneading uncomfortable truths
O'Hanlon-Rodriguez conveys a compelling, feverish story that is as invigorating as it is exhausting, as she illustrates the anxious recreants involved with Empanada Loca. From the money-hungry landlord who wants to shut the place down to the last living family member of the Empanada Loca bloodline, these people, as much as they embody the evils of consumerism, aren’t wholly evil. Turned over inside them is desperation to stay alive, muddled in calamitous secrets diffused by Dolores’s attentive heeding and her magical, killer massages.
Empanada Loca is a rapid, unrelenting performance that spirals into a bloody, gruesome place. With a simple set, there is no visual representation of that spiral. It’s all in our heads, and Dolores grips your attention and feeds it with uncomfortable but fastidious revelations about how we consume, how we build on top of each other, and how we carelessly destroy the roots of a neighborhood that may or may not be ours. This lack of design makes it more terrifying: how could we possibly imagine something this twisted in our own heads? And how certain can we be that this “Grand Guignol” of a show isn’t, to some extent, true?
Tinged with Sweeney Todd vibes that pulse distressingly close to home, Empanada Loca is an arduous tale of one woman’s clash with class and gentrification. Don’t overlook it.
What, When, Where
Empanada Loca. By Aaron Mark. Through September 21, 2019 at Panorama Philly, 5213 Grays Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Panorama Philly performance spaces are accessible only by stairs.