South Philly resident directs a one-woman twist on Sweeney Todd

“Empanada Loca,” directed by Whitman resident Michael MacGowan and starring Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, opens at Panorama Philly on Sept. 4 with the FringeArts Festival. 

Whitman resident Michael MacGowan directs Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez in an upcoming production of “Empanada Loca,” a one-woman twist on Sweeney Todd. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

In a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens, Sweeney Todd, the subject of a Stephen Sondheim musical, seeks revenge by transforming into a demonic barber living in Victorian-era London. 

Several feet beneath the bustling streets of present-day Washington Heights, a displaced young woman, Dolores, finds herself living among the mole people of Manhattan after dropping out of college and serving prison time. 

Dolores, similarly to Todd, turns into a satanic masseuse – the subject of a one-woman play, “Empanada Loca,” directed by Whitman resident Michael MacGowan, which opens at Panorama Philly, 5213 Grays Ave, on Sept. 4 with the FringeArts Festival. 

Delving into topics of isolation, survival and murder, the 90-minute solo show, originally written and directed by Aaron Mark for the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York City in 2015, “explores the fringe sides of life,” which, as described by MacGowan, serves as the cornerstone of his new producing entity Recondite Tourist Activities. 

“I think Dolores, the main character of ‘Empanada Loca,’ is a character who people might not notice, who people might not take into account,” said MacGowan, who is a 2016 graduate of the Pig Iron School. “She’s definitely somebody who can fit in a statistic as somebody who’s been incarcerated. She’s homeless at the beginning of the play when we find her. Definitely, somebody who has been ignored and pushed out of their home in a lot of ways. Someone who has been pushed out of themselves.”

MacGowan, a native of Tucson, Arizona, describes Recondite Tourist Activities as “somewhere between a B-movie and a broken heart.” As a production of both a horror and sentimentality, “Empanada Loca,” is a fitting show for the emerging producing entity. 

Inspired by the tale of Sweeney Todd, the play, which follows Dolores over the course of a decade, draws parallels between contemporary income inequality and Gothic poverty of Victorian England.

Since gentrification has been prevalent in the city of Philadelphia, the show feels particularly relevant. 

“I think the income inequality partnered with this idea that upper-class folks can just come into neighborhoods of low-income people and just take over and push people out of their homes,” said Philadelphia-based actor, dancer and teacher Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, who plays Dolores. “The similarity that I see with Sweeney Todd is – this is a man – he got pushed into becoming kind of a demonic figure and in that same way, this woman is pushed so hard outside of the fringes of her own identity that she is forced to become this demonic thing but she really does believe it’s to save herself.”

While gentrification can often feel like a temporary trend, the play probes at the long-term effects of economic and social displacement. 

“One of the things that the play really touches on is – when does this end?” MacGowan said. “Where’s the bottom? Are you just going to keep pushing everybody out, everybody out, everybody out until we all live underground? The gentrification issue is definitely something that’s integral to this script.”

Noting the motifs of filmmaker Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking 2017 movie “Get Out,” O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and MacGowan say horror is a particularly effective way to shed light on various social justice issues, including race and poverty.

For them, the production uses terror in a way that frightens audiences while communicating certain societal issues in a subtle way that, perhaps, would not be received as effectively if executed in a more straightforward scenario. 

As a “no-frills” one-woman show, the play enables audiences to cast such fears within their own imaginations. 

“The writing of the script itself is so visual,” O’Hanlon-Rodriguez said. “Theater, as much as we want to try, we’re not movies. We don’t have big explosions, and it’s sometimes hard to make truly horrific things seem as real…So, this relies on a visual storytelling, and I feel like the power of it is that all of it happens in the eyes of the audience.”

O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and MacGowan want audiences to enjoy the thrilling torment of “Empanada Loca” while also using it as a lens to view such societal concerns plaguing our country – and even our city.  

Perhaps, audiences will consider the realities of today’s political and economic systems and maybe, along the way, foster some empathy toward those who have been victimized by its effects. 

“Because I do love Dolores so much as a character,” O’Hanlon-Rodriguez  said. “I hope that folks, as they watch the play, also grapple with how she is a good person and not a good person and kind of open their mind up to the gray that exists in a black and white world…You watch the system kind of close in around this person, and I do hope that people can see that she’s created by it and that maybe even to question the folks you might judge out there created by the system, too.”

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