It astonishes me that on its tenth anniversary, more theater-goers don’t know about the splendid United Solo Festival. The world’s largest of its kind, this curated collection of one-person presentations offers 120 shows from countries such as Canada, Israel, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Nigeria, and South Africa as well as the U.S. From September 19 through November 24, the intimate, top floor theater of 410 West 42nd Street (Theatre Row) runs mostly one-off performances each day and into the evening. (If there’s demand, several shows are scheduled.)
The extraordinarily diverse menu contains biography, comedy, drama, documentary, stand-up, music, movement…Artists stand before an audience often with next to no scenery or tech to distract. Opportunity exists to reach out to the industry, generate income, and receive media attention. It’s a grab bag of talent, culture, tradition and perspective.
Every year, I interview four participants to show festival range. Click here to read the first two. These are the second two.
Blood Type Ragu
Written and Performed by Frank Ingrasciotta
Directed by Ted Sod
September 21, 2 p.m.
Frank Ingrasciotta trained as an actor in college, with Sanford Meisner and with William Esper. He also pragmatically secured a degree in Educational Theater. The artist teaches acting, playwriting, and memoir writing at schools, to seniors, and in a prison program, as well as performing.
Blood Type Ragu (the Italian meat sauce thought of as sustenance) originated 19 years ago with stories Ingrasciotta had written about his colorful family. “My parents didn’t get along so they ‘separated,’ but because of Catholic upbringing didn’t divorce,” he says. In fact, his mother and father remained in the same house, subjecting Frank, his brother and sister to a “volatile upbringing.” Because of that, the siblings all distanced themselves from their Sicilian culture. Ingrasciotta abandoned the church and stopped cooking Italian.
It wasn’t until he met and married Sicilian wife, Theresa – after swearing he’d have nothing to do with a fellow paesan – that Ingrasciotta circled back and found a way to create not just a comedy, but the kind of meaningful piece he envisioned. The couple immediately “got” one another. Both were what he describes as “from it, but not of it-observers.” Kismet.
Theresa’s parents spent six months a year here, six months in Sicily. As part of their honeymoon, the freshly minted Ingrasciottas went to visit. “The place both my parents came from was two towns away,” he says. “My wife said, you have to visit your relatives. I hadn’t seen any in Italy since I was seven. As a result of their situation, my parents carried a kind of shame and excommunicated themselves from the rest of the family. I didn’t know whether anyone would remember me, what I’d say. They’d want an explanation.”
“I did go and it was magical,” he says. Ingrasciotta’s aunt and uncle embraced him. They saw his father in his face. He walked the streets his parents walked as children. “It was, in the end, total forgiveness. I felt synchronicity, connection.” The artist had a Eureka moment. His story became poignant as well as funny. It was time to write. Including some of his wife’s similar experiences (poetic license), the play took shape.
In 2001, Blood Type: Ragu premiered at Dixon Place. Eight years later, director Ted Sod came in, took out what was extraneous and got the work down to a tight 80 minutes. It ran three months at The Actor’s Playhouse. Included in their Best Of list, this is its third outing at United Solo.
“The writing hasn’t changed, but I’m different every time I play it,” he says. “I feel my dad’s spirit travelled with me through this whole thing. There’s something very healing about living inside your parents.” The actor plays his mother and father, siblings, Theresa, and neighbors. His brother loved it, brought his friends. His sister shied away at first, but has, he thinks, come to appreciate the play. Twenty-two characters are depicted through body and voice.
Ingrasciotta has been back to Sicily many times. “Every time I go, I meet someone else,” he says. “They’ve watched clips of the show on Facebook. Making fun comes from a place of honoring…I didn’t have to make my mother funny, she was funny. And Sicilian dialect (his first language) is very poetic. You’d never tell anyone to drop dead, instead it’s Your heart should blow up in your body!” He laughs.
Natural gravitation back to things Italian occurred, especially the food. “I’ll tell ya, a tomato in Italy doesn’t taste like a tomato here…The relationship is emotional, visceral…I can see my childhood for what it was.” Promotional notes on his play sound apt: It’s not just a comedy, not just a drama, it’s family-and we all have one!
Next year Frank Ingrasciotta may be able to offer his new piece, Senior Moments. It chronicles teaching a senior memoir class during the day and directing a play cast with privileged private school students in the evening. Having replaced a venerated teacher at school, this warm genial man was literally vilified by the kids in person and in print. He would’ve quit had it not been for senior advice. “They gave me a new story to tell.” Intriguing.
The actor has also just completed two short films for Amazon.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Equally Divine: The Real Story of The Mona Lisa
Written and Performed by Jenny Lyn Bader
Directed by Julie Kramer
October 24, 9 p.m.
Jenny Lyn Bader is the playwright daughter of an award winning actor. An undergraduate in English Literature at Harvard, she also did some acting, but was on track to be a director. After school, the whip smart, articulate young woman became Wendy Wasserstein’s assistant for seven years, and was mentored by her until the famous playwright’s death.
Bader’s first play, Shakespeare’s Undiscovered One Act, “an academic mystery comedy,” in fact, her writing, garnered more interest in her than the young woman’s ambitions as a director. “I looked very young,” she says.
Now a multi-produced and published playwright, the artist had work mounted at such prestigious venues as The O’Neill Center and Actors Theatre of Louisville. One play was just translated into French. A university professor has requested teaching Equally Divine to her Art and Crime class. Bader presented its latest iteration at The New York Society Library. (She also authors articles, award shows, and has had television pilots optioned.)
Equally Divine was commissioned by a company called Core Ensemble which presents what they call Chamber Music Theater, evidently not the small cast musical with which we associate the term. Bader explained: First they decide what music they want to play – in this case Stravinsky, Debussy, Poulenc, Satie. Next, they research the era – 1910/1911 – looking for an intriguing story, here, the 1911 theft of The Mona Lisa. Lastly, a writer is recruited.
“They looked on my web site, saw a script sample that had an Apollinaire joke – he was arrested as a suspect in the robbery – and probably thought at least we won’t have to explain who Apollinaire is!” she says. “There were a lot of other connections between me and this material. First of all, I write a lot about art versus commerce, the nature of inspiration, the relationship between intuition and deduction…it spoke to many of my themes.”
That was not the half of it. “I like to explore stereotypes and show that people are often not what we think they are,” she says. “The idea of taking the most famous woman in the world and investigating who she really might’ve been, was fascinating to me.” (The play is not just about a theft.)
At the time Core approached Bader, she was working on one play set in a museum and another set in 1912. She’s been in a Madrigal group, sings in Italian, reads French, and did a great deal of work on The Renaissance in college. She’d even read Leonardo’s notebooks. “It’s just the kind of thing I read,” she says.
When she got the rights to perform four years after turning in a first, more musical version, Bader changed the play’s name from Mona Lisa Speaks to Equally Divine. “The reigning theology at the time was that only men possessed divinity,” she says. “Leonardo wrote in his notebooks that he felt women were equally divine. I thought it was a better title.” She had also discovered and includes the fact that the artist had terrible trouble getting his model to smile. “He brought in different dresses and even clowns…it really happened…” (Details in the play.)
Bader had been aware of the theft but not specifics. Security was, of course, nothing like it is today, but French borders were sealed. Picasso was detained and questioned because he hated the idea of museums and had threatened to burn them down. It turns out that he and Apollinaire had actually stolen some Iberian busts, which were later used as models for the painting Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. When the Mona Lisa disappeared, the conspirators felt it would be prudent to return the sculptures. (Details in the play.)
There’s a scene with dialogue between Picasso and the Mona Lisa when he goes to sketch her (Bader always refers to the artwork as “her”) and a fictional police interrogation of Apollinaire. Privy to backstory, we learn the model’s history and observe relationships. “Core offered me two actors, one as Mona Lisa and the other to play all the men in her life,” she says. “I said to them, This woman has been smiling silently for 400 years. I think she has a lot to say.”
The playwright never intended to act in her piece. She finds it exciting “but memorization is huge, especially when you’re rewriting all the time.”
Jenny Lyn Bader’s Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library, a three character piece about the arrest of Hannah Arendt in Berlin, will have its world premiere at Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey, October 17 and will play through November 10 2019.
Photos by Joel Weber
For more information, go to the website for United Solo.