2015 Edmonton Fringe review and recap: Eating Pasta Off the Floor

Maria Grazia Affinito has an uncomfortable relationship with her mother.

In Eating Pasta Off the Floor, her one-woman show about the hassles she experiences in dealing with a woman who seems at times larger than life, "Grazia" (her mother is also named Maria) and her mother go from awkward scenarios around the town to a soul-searching trip to Italy for a relative's wedding. Along the way, their relationship is pushed, fractures, gets redeemed, totally shatters, and is pushed to its limits. While this seems an odd character arc, and it is, that the story doesn't follow a strictly linear timeline allows for us to see more facets into their relationship.

Affinito of course plays all the characters here, usually female family members but occasionally some supporting players as well, especially early when we need to see a "day in the life" of Grazia and her mother: Maria (I'll use her mother's first name here) jokingly offers Grazia as a wife-for-sale in Safeway, heckles her performance in Twelfth Night, and manages to talk her way past an otherwise burly and unflappable security guard into the backstage area.

Their relationship seems tender (though slightly strained by her mother's bombastic style and deplorable fashion sense) and early on you get a sense that the two of them both love each other more out of familial obligation than any strong bond. When the relationship is later strained, this early portrayal seems inconsistent, but we'll get to that later.

The main plot is that Maria and Grazia are off to Italy for a cousin's(?) wedding. It's their first such journey together, and early on Grazia understands the beauty of southern Italy, amazed and impressed by this old world charm that once produced her crazy mother. We also get an early sense, however, that Maria isn't going to be automatically at home in her old home: a fashionable clothing sales girl chases the women out of the store after seeing Maria's gaudy outfit, and Grazia's embarrassment over her mother's style accidentally finds a voice. The Italian trip is barely underway, and already things are eroding between the two. At the wedding, their backstory comes to the forefront: the old world belief in divorce is still strong enough that Maria pretends her husband has died rather than admit that he's now an ex-husband (even though it seems this has been the case for quite some time). Grazia is requested to lie about their living arrangement as well, as the Italian notion that honesty takes a back seat to positively portraying their family as a traditional one pushes Grazia into implicitly defending her mother. Being pushed doesn't suit Grazia well, it seems. Maria's old cousins still love her, though we discover that the younger family members have been told she's a bit batty. Grazia of course knows full well this is the case, but clearly is defensive when her mother is attacked by outsiders (blood relation outsiders they may be). Grazia sings for the bride and groom and endears herself to the audience, while by contrast Maria tries reading her poetry and the crowd goes about their business.

Out in the olive tree fields of rural Italy, Grazia contrasts her mother's happy playing with her old cousin with the discovery that in perhaps this exact same field, years ago during WWII, these two women were young girls trying to escape the oncoming front. One had to sacrifice herself to save the other, and Maria was the one who paid the price...

We're a long way from funny socks over sandals and pushy security guards and Safeway, kids.

Maria's life, it seems, isn't at all a happy one: in Italy she was raped as a young child. Traveling to America, she married a man with a temper, was kidnapped by unknown men for unknown reasons and finally was tired of the physical and mental abuse and chased him out of the house. Unfortunately, as was foreshadowed earlier in the play, Grazia inherited her father's temper. The two women come to blows in Grazia's teenaged years, and her ploy to call the cops and have social services intervene backfires when she repeatedly threatens to murder her mother. Grazia had a tough family life in a tough neighbourhood, and it seems at this point like she and her mother are destined to never speak again. But somehow, "offscreen", they do, well before the first scene of this play. How Grazia and Maria reconcile after a psychiatrist evaluates Grazia's intense matricidal desires is material for a dozen more scenes we don't see. Unfortunately, though the play teases us with a couple of different happy endings, we see the characters finish the play much as they started. Grazia is only a little more public in how she chastizes her mother's numerous character flaws.

It certainly works on a dramatic (and, more importantly, realistic) level that we see throughout time these two characters in flux. It seems that Grazia is the most important part of Maria's life, and vice versa. After Grazia's father is out of the picture it appears that these two have no particular interest or even skill in branching out and attracting a new mate. The two women are inexorably linked, their personal gravities (linked, as noted earlier, by more of a social dynamic than a strong interpersonal bond) forcing them to slowly move in orbit around each other [figuring out the two-body problem solution for these two, appropriately enough, would require us to work out a value for the eccentricity. The barycenter will almost certainly fall within Maria. -ed] They will eventually separate, though, and it's likely that Maria's death (tragic as that would be to Grazia) will also represent her freedom. Assuming that most if not all of the play is autobiographical rather than representing an "idealized" form of these two characters, we know a little bit about how Grazia has coped with the tragedy. She is, after all, Maria Grazia Affinito, our actress. We know that she turned to the theatre, to the world of fiction and make believe. A way for her to live different lives and probably work out a few of the personal demons that result in police putting her in a rubber room.

These emotional connections aren't helped by the fact that characters don't arc so much as they engage in a series of random walks, seemingly rising and falling between scenes. Again it works from a realistic point of view better than a story point of view: at one of the happy endings Affinito actually apologizes to the crowd that there's still another scene to go through. It doesn't help that this scene occurs pretty much where the work feels like a natural conclusion, but again, that's life. As with the rest of the play, it's the performance here that really carries it. Affinito pulls off the characters almost flawlessly, putting a real sense of a deep (and, often, tortured) soul into Maria's use of language both verbal and nonverbal. You can almost picture the wild grey Italian mane of her hair swinging around the stage with every physical twerk of Affinito's shoulders. The expanded universe around her is also well defined, with each character giving a little hint of the larger story that Grazia is only dimly able to see from spending time with them. It's Affinitos' ability to portray all of these characters so well (with the possible exception, oddly enough, of teen murdering Grazia who comes across as a caricature, though assuming Affinito actually was institutionalized and later released I can understand the difficulty in even writing the character of her violent former self, let alone convincingly expressing it on stage) that entertains and delights the audience. She's able to explore this world through their eyes to the extent you almost think you're hunting for truffles in Naples.

Eating Pasta Off the Floor isn't the perfect play: the structure occasionally shifts around too much and the work ends without a real sense that the primary conflict between these two has been resolved, but that's the problem with any autobiography of course. The story by definition is still going on at the time of the "ending". In this case, at least we have been able to be entertained as Maria and Grazia let us be caught up, however briefly, in their tragic orbit.

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