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Master Chef

by B.A. Nilsson on June 8, 2011

Blood Type: Ragu
Written by Frank Ingrasciotta, directed by Ted Tod Capital Repertory Theatre, through June 19

This theater review could as easily be filed under food. The one-man show opens at dinnertime, as young Frank’s mother, Maria, prepares the evening meal, its possibilities an incantation: “Manicotti, cannelloni, fettuccine, linguini, macaroni, rigatoni, fusilli, tortellini, con ragu, alla marinara, semplice, al dente, con alglio, con olio, con pesce e piselli.” It’s a religious ritual in a household of immigrant Sicilian parents: “The perfectly set table becomes a symbol of holy communion, covered by a hand-embroidered cloth made by the Holy Mother.”

Like many shrewd actors, Frank Ingrasciotta realized how helpful a solo show can be to one’s performing career. He also found himself with a trove of stories to tell about his upbringing in Brooklyn with fractious parents in a colorful neighborhood of other immigrants.

Blood Type: Ragu weaves a fairly chronological portrait of a boy whose filial loyalties are torn even as he’s discovering his own aspirations, and lets the actor brilliantly impersonate some two dozen characters along the way.

How easy it would be to push those characterizations into caricature! Maria and Gaspare, Frank’s mom and dad, are the centers of the piece, and, if they seem a little indistinct at first, it’s because he allows them to grow into completely realized pictures. They exhibit behavior we’ve seen overplayed many times, although in this case, Ingrasciotta is being respectful of the archetypes at the heart of these characters. I know this, having been practically adopted by a large, quarrelsome Italian family when I was in my teens.

Some of the more peripheral characters are broadly played, and win the laughs that are well placed throughout the piece. “Skete Raggiata” (The Raging Spinster) and “Camarata con le Gambe Aparte” (Mrs. Camarata With Her Legs Spread Open) are two examples of the neighbors who witness some of the family’s goings-on, and they’re effective snapshots of the kind of eccentrics we all found in our neighborhoods.

What’s most compelling about the piece is that the character of Frank is allowed also to grow slowly, so that we see him mature from a frightened observer into a young man defiantly prepared to step out on his own, a move personified by the story of his sexual maturation after a crazy drive to a Nevada brothel.

Frank’s mother takes the young man to Sicily on the heels of a fight with his father, and the portrait of this foreign (to him) country with its plethora of relatives conveys all of the chaos and confusion that must have colored the trip—yet it’s just the one actor wheeling from one voice and posture to the next, with a little help from some rear projections and well-crafted, sparingly used soundtrack.

By the time we reach the sad separation of his parents and his father’s eventual liaison with Nancy, a blowsy, too-American woman, Ingrasciotta has played out such a skillfully realized story that the poignancy and comedy mix like a potent vinaigrette.

We hear little of Frank the actor in the autobiography. His stage and screen career, his writing and teaching is wrapped up in the very fact of this show’s existence. He seeks no validation of that part of his life. Instead, he closes the piece (and I don’t believe I’m giving you spoilers here) with the beginning of his own marriage and his pursuit of a family of his own. A few final, affecting insights are gained with another trip to Sicily, finishing on a well-earned, bittersweet note.

My sole complaint is that some of the pacing from segment to segment could be tightened, particularly early in the show, but I suspect it’s a matter of playing it before an audience a few times to set the timing. Otherwise, the show truly is a tour de force. Storytelling is an endangered art, I fear, but it shines through as the backbone of this piece, with the work of an excellent actor also on display.