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October 20, 2015

A New Take on Horror Theater: Empanada Loca at Labyrinth Theater Company

The legend of Sweeney Todd exists in many forms, the most popular being the Sondheim musical. It has now inspired a new solo play set in an abandoned Manhattan subway tunnel. A Labyrinth Theater Company production, Empanada Loca stars Broadway’s Daphne Rubin-Vega as Dolores, a survivor living in a dog-eat-dog world. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to playwright and director Aaron Mark about the freedom of solo pieces, writing for Daphne Rubin-Vega, and his fascination with horror theater.

Culturadar: When did you come upon the legend of Sweeney Todd and when did you want to adapt it?

Aaron Mark: My first exposure to Sweeney Todd was, like most people, the musical, and over the years through my interest in horror theater and in early melodrama and Grand Guignol, I found that the musical was not the origin story. It was the story from the Penny Dreadfuls. I became fascinated with that story. I had done a solo version of Medea with Tom Hewitt, which was a horror take on the Medea story, and I had been actively looking for another piece to do like that. I looked at these pseudo-horror stories that had been told and told and told, looking for something people think they know but I could tell in a new way. And then once I thought of Daphne Rubin-Vega, I knew I had to adapt it.

CR: Do you think anything changes by having a woman as the Sweeney Todd character?

AM: The story itself has changed a great deal. It’s really less of an adaptation than a play inspired by an apocryphal premise. There’s little of Sweeney Todd left except the premise—the cannibalism and shop upstairs. I don’t know if it’s specifically because it’s a woman, although it may be, but one thing I found is that up until the Christopher Bond version of the story, the character was driven by greed. The very first iteration was the Penny Dreadful called String of Pearls—it was a literal string of pearls that the character stole—and he would cut throats and steal money and jewelry. Then, with Bond’s version, he was driven by revenge. This character, Dolores, is driven by heartbreak. It’s a different motivation, and a completely different manifestation of the story.

CR: You are writing a series of three solo plays. What do you enjoy about writing a solo theater piece?

AM: What draws me to the solo pieces I’ve been doing is that I find them freeing. To boil the play down to the essence of one actor and monologue means we can go anywhere. We don’t have the pressure to literalize or dramatize each horrific thing happening in the play. We can go so much further than if we actually depict those things. Solo plays can appear to be limiting, but the limitations create the tensions. I like the focus of it, the process. It’s fun to be so immersed in this piece just with Daphne, with one actor.

CR: You wrote this role specifically for Daphne Rubin-Vega. How does the writing process change when you know the actor in the role?

AM: I always write for someone in mind. I have trouble writing if I don’t have a voice in my head. It’s not always the case that the person ends up doing it. That’s just lucky. I wrote this before I knew her. I had been a fan and I knew her work. It really was luck that she responded to it the way she did. Since we’ve been working on this, I’ve tailored the language around her voice even more. It’s so subtle—she has a rhythm and speech pattern. If it feels like there’s an extra syllable in the sentence, we will find another way to say it. She’s very much my collaborator on it. If she feels her character would use a different word, I defer to her on that.

CR: Horror seems to be more of a film genre. What draws you to horror theater? How can theater be scary?

AM: I love to be scared in the theater. That is my favorite thing. I’ve had very few experiences in the theater in which I’ve been genuinely frightened. My take on why horror theater is so hard to do and it rarely works is that we can’t really match on stage the realism in film in terms of depicting something that’s gruesome. We’re also living in an age in which there’s actual footage of people getting their heads cut off. How do we match that onstage without it looking absurd? My way with these monologue plays is to not depict anything all. The plays become personal, and people get a little freaked out. It lives in this place in the brain where we’re used to taking these images in, and it’s not being taken in in a visual way. Before Medea, I had been trying to write a thriller, and I had been experimenting with various ways of doing horror theater now. I’d stumbled on this monologue form, and it seemed like people were responding to it.

CR: What would you want to tell audiences about this play?

AM: I spend all this time talking about it as a horror play, and I feel I should always tell people that this is a character who is incredibly endearing, and Daphne is as lovable as you’ve ever seen her. It’s not a slasher play by any means. It’s really less about brutality than it is about the humanity of this character. If you are drawn to things that are scary, come. If not, there is something else going on. It’s about trying to humanize this character, this villain that we all think we know. Daphne is somebody who is able to do that. She can take us through these horrible things, and we still like her.

Empanada Loca runs through November 8th at the Bank Street Theater.

Photos by
Monique Carboni.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.

Posted at 8:57 PM

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