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Daphne Rubin-Vega Offers a Chilling Performance in Empanada Loca

Daphne Rubin-Vega Offers a Chilling Performance in Empanada Loca

Daphne Rubin-Vega
Photo by Monique Carboni

The one-woman show requires the actress to hold the audience’s attention for 100 minutes as she recounts a sinister dog-eat-dog tale.

The world first took notice of Daphne Rubin-Vega almost 20 years ago when she was wailing at the moon like a cat in heat in the original cast of Jonathan Larson's hit musical Rent. We loved her as Conchita in Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics. And she was the best part of the fumbling 1998 cult film Wild Things. Returning to the New York stage just in time for Halloween, Rubin-Vega is chilling audiences as Dolores in Aaron Mark's Empanada Loca, inspired by the legend of Sweeney Todd.

Set in contemporary New York City, the production is the perfect vehicle for Rubin-Vega to reintroduce herself to today's younger theater audiences. "Empanada Loca was written for me," says Rubin-Vega. The dark, one-woman show requires the actress to hold the audience's attention for 100 minutes as she recounts a sinister dog-eat-dog tale.

Inspired by the Grand Guignol style of theater, Mark's script is surprisingly ripe with social commentary. "When I read Empanada Loca, I thought it was beyond good. I thought it was important," says Rubin-Vega. Audiences looking for intellectualism with their thrills will, too. The script for Empanada Loca successfully explores transgender identities, the youthful propensity for over-sharing via smart phones, and it adds a feminist angle to the familiar Todd legend. All of these elements definitely make this version of the story worth devouring.

Audiences meet Dolores in the pitch-black darkness of an abandoned subway tunnel deep below the city. Sound designer Ryan Rumery shocks our systems with the deafening rumble of a passing train and Bradley King's lighting design has the actress deliver her first handful of lines in total darkness. A sliver of light slowly rises to a dim glow that sets the tone for the deliciously devious tale about to be spun. Eventually, Rubin-Vega's Dolores decides to illuminate her tunnel with a hanging string of light bulbs, allowing us to fully see her and her surroundings.

The lithe and small-framed Rubin-Vega narrates, keenly using her voice, the details of the disturbing story, and our own morbid curiosities to keep us entertained and quietly unnerved. Skillfully mining Mark's text and applying sincere emotionality and charismatic wit to it, she masterfully creates an empathetic character. "She needs to be humanized," Rubin-Vega explains, "because the thing about people who live underground is that they struggle to be reminded that they're human." Whether sane, insane, rational, or illogical, Rubin-Vega's portrait of Dolores is one that is ultimately inviting, and that is what makes her performance all the more bone chilling.

Likewise, with all the magic and the power her voice and stage presence can muster, Rubin-Vega captivates the audience as she recounts her exploits as promising college student-turned-murderess by way of drug dealer, ex-con, and masseuse. "She's a female who would have been a really cool person if she hadn't made the choices that she made," says Rubin-Vega. "At the end of the day, what made her make those abominable choices was love. And, we've all made unfortunate choices because of love."

For those familiar with Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or any version the legend surrounding Todd, Mark's Empanada Loca packs no surprises. However, it is still fun to experience this updated and whimsically macabre iteration of the familiar story. Also, Rubin-Vega accepts and rises to the challenge of a one-woman show with aplomb.

As Dolores, Rubin-Vega leaves a lasting impression on the audience and has been rewarded in the best ways possible. "The other night we had a bunch of LGBTQ teens who came to the show. There was a young man who said, 'I would love to play this role,' " says Rubin-Vega. "Aaron and I were just so flattered. To me that's the ultimate praise."

Empanada Loca runs through November 8 at Bank Street Theater. For tickets and more information, please visit

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