In writer Giulia Melucci’s kitchen, major life moments are worked out over simmering pots of sauce and long strands of freshly made pasta.
In real life, Melucci mined the peaks and valleys of her love life — and her years spent cooking fabulous Italian-American meals for a parade of would-be suitors — to write a memoir published in 2010 called “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.” The book was adapted in 2012 into a play of the same name by writer Jacques Lamarre.
The play, set to be produced by the Penobscot Theatre Company April 27 through May 14, is a one-woman show that asks its star — in PTC’s case, the petite, powerful Michelle Damato — to do something a little bit unorthodox during her performance.
Damato, as Melucci, cooks a full meal — antipasto, salad and freshly made spaghetti with meat sauce — over the course of the show, which she serves to eight audience members each night.
“It’s definitely the most difficult show I’ve ever done, but it also might be the most fulfilling,” Damato, a Florida-based performer, who lived in midcoast Maine from ages 12 to 18, said. “And to think, there were people who said I could hardly chop an onion before I did this show.”
Damato was the actress director Michael Marotta had in mind when he saw “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” performed in Cincinnati a few years ago. By the end of the show, he knew he had to direct it. Marotta told his friend Fort Myers-based Florida Repertory Theatre director Robert Cacioppo about it. Soon enough, it was added to their 2015-2016 season. Damato, a Florida Rep company member, was cast as Giulia and Marotta directed.
“I just thought it was such an engaging, funny show,” Marotta, who also directs PTC’s version, said. “I love to cook, and I’m also Italian-American, and the fact that she cooks a meal onstage I just thought was extraordinary. … I knew [Damato] was just the right girl for it. It has to be played by someone who is so warm and charming that they can entertain you for two hours.”
While the acting part of the show was no sweat for Damato, the cooking part proved to be the true challenge.
“Michael is such an accomplished cook, so his skill in the kitchen was really intimidating to me,” Damato said. “But he was so kind and so helpful. We learned a lot together.”
“We basically had a cooking class. She made pasta several times a day until she got it right,” Marotta said. “It’s a bit of the rubbing your belly and patting your head kind of thing, because you’re trying to inhabit the character while making sure you do every action at the right time. You need to heat the oil, add the onions, turn on the burner, all at the right time. It’s choreography.”
Cacioppo recommended “Spaghetti” during its 2015 run to his former Florida Rep colleague, PTC artistic director Bari Newport, who jumped at the chance to bring Damato and Marotta to Bangor to do the show. Initially, the idea was to do it as a co-production between PTC and Florida Rep, but as time went on it became more about a sharing of artistic resources. Newport and Cacioppo have frequently shared talent, including Florida Rep company members Mark Chambers (PTC’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” “Dr. Cerberus” and “The Woman in Black”) and Brendan Powers (“Annie,” “Our Town” and “August: Osage County”).
“Two years have gone by, and the show has grown and changed, and Michael is such an incredible director that he’s always keeping it fresh,” Newport, who was an associate director at Florida Rep from 2002 to 2007, said. “And also, the theater at Florida Rep is totally different from ours. It’s maybe 100 seats, and it’s three-quarters in the round. It’s incredibly intimate, which makes for a totally different experience from our big theater.”
Newport also welcomed the challenge of building a real working kitchen onstage. PTC scenic designer Tricia Hobbs designed it — a large, comfortable space that looks like one you’d see in a real upper middle class home, with a granite countertop and stainless steel fixtures — and properties master Meredith Perry ensures that it’s restocked after each show with all the food needed to make the meal again. There’s even a dishwasher onstage.
“Timing it all out is a mind bender, and watching Michelle make pasta from scratch and then make spaghetti out of it for eight is definitely something I have never seen on stage before,” Newport said. “The real challenge is the prep and clean-up before, after and during, backstage.”
Food is at the heart of the play, of course — not just the preparing and eating of it but also food as a metaphor for love, hope and resilience.
“I know so many women who are so smart, attractive, talented and successful, who have just not found Mr. Right,” Marotta said. “I don’t think it matters if you’re an Italian-American from Queens, or a woman from Bangor, Maine. The search for romance is something we can all identify with. … And we all eat. Food is sustenance, but it’s also pleasure. And it’s how you show love.”
In the spirit of the character of Giulia, Damato finds herself very comfortable with her new role as maker of food. So comfortable, in fact, that she relishes the opportunity to improvise within the show or when unexpected changes or mishaps occur.
“I remember during one show I realized that the water didn’t boil for the pasta, and I knew that later on down the line I’d need to figure something out,” Damato said. “So I just did improv for 10 or 15 minutes. I danced with people onstage. It was just so much fun, and people really responded to it. … I think that’s one of the really beautiful things about the show.”
“I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” runs from April 27 to May 14. For tickets, call the PTC box office at 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org. There are four tables of two available each night for the pasta dinner cooked onstage by Damato. Each two-person table is $60 and includes antipasto, salad, homemade spaghetti with bolognese sauce, and either red wine or water. To inquire about dinner tickets, call the box office.