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Italian Trauma Drama 

by Michael Bowen

Last Saturday I went to a fight and a wedding reception broke out. Let's just say that the nuptials of Tina Vitale and Tony Nunzio do not transpire without incident.

Clutching our tickets (nicely printed "wedding invitations"), we traipsed into the Ridpath, where the ceremony itself is celebrated on one side of a divider in the Empire Ballroom, with the reception on the other.

In this particular church, they let you take your drinks inside. Some of the guests, therefore, didn't mind much that the matron of honor's dress supposedly arrived way late. (The group in front of me started their third round around the time the bridesmaids finally made their entrance.)

The cast forms a receiving line just after the ceremony, and that's when suddenly, this wedfest comes alive: The bride's mother refuses to divulge any of the ingredients from her mother's mother's mother's chicken parmigiana. (Not even one.) One of the groomsmen, a crewcut middle linebacker-type, shook my hand and palmed me a dollar-off coupon for a strip joint featuring Tony's dad's curvaceous new girlfriend. Then Tony's dad did the same. Then the girlfriend hugged me, a little too flirtatiously. Is that Tony's dad glaring at me?

The Nunzios, classy people all, wanted nothing but the best for their children: The hors d'oeuvres, for example, consisted in their entirety of Ritz crackers with Cheese Whiz. Father Francis danced with the stripper and got so soused that Tony calls him "Father Happy Hour." And Tina has a surprise for Tony: "a papal blessing from the Pope" on which Tony's name is misspelled. (My, the acrimony after that little miscue.)

All in all, experiencing Tony 'n' Tina is like being on the set of a movie called My Big Fat Italian Wedding. But with about six scenes going on around you at any one time during the reception, you have to be a giving actor. You have to engage the improvisers in their improv. About three-quarters of the crowd obliged, joining in one of the longest conga lines in my personal conga-line recollection. But then the other 25 percent just sat and stared at us, obviously thinking, Lord, what fools these mortals be.

Some conga; some don't. Those who don't tend to fixate on their food. What about the "dinner" half of the "dinner theater" experience? Basically, the fare was only a step above what you'd find on the rubber-chicken circuit. The fictional caterer offered a "Love Buffet" that included a few olives and an uninspiring salad for the antipasto, followed by mostaccioli in a creamy garlic sauce and wedge-shaped boneless chicken pieces in a minimal sauce. But somewhere around the refilling of the champagne glasses and the outbreak of the Chicken Dance, you sort of forget all about the food. You're having too much fun watching Grandma faint when Tony's ex-boyfriend rips off his shirt.

The evening, however, gets off to a poor start: a meandering homily, a sing-along without a point, Scripture readings used as setups for jokes that built to, well, not much. The volume on the P.A. system is too low; the music sounds tinny. (There's a fine line between satire and actual ineptness.) The wacky Italian relatives parade down the aisle, then crack jokes among themselves. All their comic byplay is confined to the first couple of rows, with the jokes merely lost on the rest of us.

Take my tip: Skip the ceremony, have another drink out in the lobby, then jump into the receiving line. You'll get caught up on all the characters just fine -- mostly because they'll still be busy advertising Mr. Nunzio's strip club.

The problem with much of what's called interactive or "environmental" theater is that it screams "planned spontaneity" at you: These are actors and they're acting and you are painfully aware of it even as they dare you to have a good time, dammit. Express Theater Northwest's production of Tony and Tina's wedfest doesn't entirely escape the curse of those painfully self-conscious moments.

At one point, though, Tony's best man came over to our table, whispering about a "special party" (wink, wink), and did I want to step outside for a bit? Next thing I know, I'm in the men's room passing around a funny-smelling (clove) cigarette while "Barry" and "Michael" (Ethan Vodde, in the evening's best and funniest performance) regaled us with some story about a cross-country trip they once shared and the Winnebago that Michael wrecked outside Gary, Indiana. For a moment, the improv lost all self-consciousness and verged on real-life give-and-take: a bunch of guys slingin' the b.s. and smokin' in the bathroom. It was uncanny, and very funny.

Then Tony came into the bathroom and we all, er, made use of the facilities in the manner for which they were intended.

Now that's interactive theater, folks.

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