It seems like every couple of years, without fail, the media remembers to remind us that we’re potentially consuming around 20 spider legs per peanut butter and jelly sandwich – and that’s just in the peanut butter. Per the FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook, of course. If the idea of FDA-allowed spider legs, grasshopper wings, or maggots in your food grosses you out, just wait for the surprise secret ingredient used at the titular pastry shop in Aaron Mark’s Empanada Loca, now playing in repertory with The Feast at Obsidian Theater. But you can probably already guess what it might be.
Empanada Loca begins with a woman named Dolores, living in a New York City tunnel the city long since gave up on, telling her story to an unseen listener. And that story is a doozy, as Dolores went from promising Hunter College student with ambitions of becoming an urban planner, with dreams of fixing the city, to a 13-year prison stint for possession with intent and assault on a cop. To give you an idea, the road in between involves the death of her police officer mother in the line of duty, her father’s fatal descent into alcoholism, and falling in love with a green-eyed drug dealer named Dominic.
When Dolores is released from prison in a too-big tank top with $200 in hand, she finds hipsters and hipster-approved establishments have overrun the old neighborhood – a Planet Fitness catering to green smoothie drinkers here, a trendy new espresso bar there, and a white girl in a Columbia sweatshirt, her boyfriend, and their cat occupying the apartment Dolores used to share with Dominic.
With no Dominic in sight and nowhere else to go, Dolores finds a safe haven in the one remnant of the old neighborhood still standing just as she remembers: Empanada Loca, a shop she frequented before her incarceration, now run by the deceased owner’s stoner son, an old friend of hers. But just as Delores begins to settle into life with a newfound purpose, the building’s landlord, Jonah, appears demanding rent. Seems Luis is way behind, and Jonah’s anxious to evict him and the shop in favor of erecting another shiny, corporate bank. When Delores unexpectedly finds the predator in her hands, she attempts to solve the problem once and for all, but creates another: Just what’s one who lives under an empanada shop to do with a sudden surplus of meat?
Mark makes no secret of the fact the Empanada Loca is inspired by the legend of Sweeney Todd, which he relocated to an urban neighborhood, with a woman of color, feeling the effects of gentrification. Mark’s script is smart, and once it grabs a hold of you, it holds on like a vise. He knows how to spin a yarn, and the ease with which it goes from nonchalantly gruesome to genuinely funny is impressive to say the least.
One thing that may not be clear yet, is that Empanada Loca is a solo show, one that rides on the shoulders of one actress. In this case, that actress is Briana Resa, proving yet again that her place on a certain recent list is more than well-deserved.
Simply put, Empanada Loca is the Briana Resa Show. Resa is a mesmerizing storyteller, who holds court with ease. From start to finish, the audience is held captive in Delores’s magic, but deadly hands. As a character, Delores is rough-edged, and no-nonsense. So yes, Resa is the embodiment of “street tough,” but it’s the vulnerability she imbues Delores with that makes her the most understood, relatable, and sympathetic serial killer we’ll be seeing on stage for quite a while. Resa is all realness and honesty in this role, and it’s not the only role she plays. As she spins Delores’s yarn, she takes on qualities of the other characters – the girlish bend of Nellie’s knees, Jonah’s nasally voice, and the cocked head and molasses-slow mannerisms of stoned entrepreneur Luis, to name a few. Resa’s got a great sense of timing, so she plays the jokes in Mark’s script well, and the range to go from chick you could definitely spend another 90 minutes chatting with to chick you’d definitely run from in a dark alley.
Director Sam Martinez (who, it should be noted, wears a lot of hats for this production, including set designer, lighting designer, and sound designer with Tom Stell) proves to have an exceptional sense of space and pace. For a solo show on a sparsely populated set, Martinez keeps Resa moving, actively engaging from every inch of the stage and making for an unexpectedly dynamic production. The show never lags or droops, despite the fact that Mark’s script could definitely stand to get to Delores’s murder spree a little sooner.
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Particularly noticeable on Martinez’s gray tarped set is, well, the gray tarps covering set pieces from Obsidian’s other show, The Feast. Luckily, they’re quick to recede into a nice, almost neutral backdrop for Resa to work against. Otherwise, the set has few accoutrements: a single chair, some crates, pieces of wood and scraps of metal. And Dolores’s oh-so-perfect $200 purple massage table. In the front “corner” of the stage sits a bucket, “fire” burning inside illuminating that area of the stage to great effect. The stark, white spotlight employed a couple of times is also a good, and reliable, choice, as is Martinez and Stell’s consistent soundtrack of ambient noise, equal parts drafty and rumbly, playing while Dolores speaks. The costume design, attributed to “Collaboration,” is pretty simple and mostly limited to Dolores’s black hoodie, blue jeans, and black lace-up boots.
There isn’t anything flashy about the design choices in this production. They are as straightforward as Delores, and rightly so. Everything here is in service of Resa, with anything that would even dare to distract from her performance clearly eschewed. And again, rightly so.
In summation, I withdraw any complaint I might have had about maligning the completely innocent and delicious empanada – during Hispanic Heritage Month, no less. Obsidian’s production of Empanada Loca is more than worth giving an empanada the side-eye for a little while.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Sundays, October 16 and 18; 9 p.m. Saturdays and October 25 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. Through October 26. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $15 to $25.