Great Small Works- Monthly Spaghetti Dinner

February 4, 2003
P.S.122 New York, NY

review by Donald Devet 

Spaghetti Dinners are variety evenings presented in a cabaret format.  Each Dinner is a unique, one-time-only event.

A hundred party poppers explode in unison to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Peace Rally flyers are shoved in our hands. Walnuts zoom across the stage barely missing a direct hit with the audience. What’s going on here? It’s just another typical Monthly Spaghetti Dinner at P.S.122. On the bill tonight are five eclectic acts, possibly chosen to compliment the strong garlic seasoning in the flimsy paper plate of spaghetti balanced on my knees. This is not just a show. This is sustenance- food for puppeteers.

It was February, 1979 when the first Spaghetti Dinner was served up in a storefront on East 9th Street by a loose association of Bread and Puppet Theater veterans. Their goal was simple- bring together the residents of this widely diverse neighborhood, enticing them with New Orleans style music and the strong aroma of garlic. It worked. At times the Dinners became so popular they were weekly rather than monthly events with cliff hanger style skits to encourage return attendance.

Today Great Small Works, a collective of six theater artists- John Bell, Trudi Cohen, Stephen Kaplan, Jenny Romaine, Roberto Rossi and Mark Sussman- continues the tradition. Since 1986, they’ve produced approximately eight Spaghetti Dinners each year, and attendance has grown to an average of 150 people.

Spaghetti Dinners are variety evenings presented in a cabaret format.  Each Dinner is a unique, one-time-only event.  Most Spaghetti Dinners are organized around a theme reflecting the ritual or social life of New York City and its varied populations (e.g., Chinese New Year, Carnival, Purim, Women’s History Month), or around a specific historical or political event (e.g., elections, anniversary of coup in Chile, bye-bye to Giuliani).  The price of admission includes a plate of homemade spaghetti and presentations by guest artists.

Spaghetti Dinners allow for rapid theatrical response to the news of the day.  They are a venue which supports community participation in the rich cultural life of New York City.  Traditional and experimental artists rub shoulders; young artists, new immigrant artists, and artists whose dedication to their work is outside the commercial realm all find a home here. 

On this particular Tuesday night the program includes five acts. First up are excerpts from “Alphabet in the Sky,” Frank London and David Lindsay’s new original blues/bluegrass song cycle, with Doug Wamble, Ilene Weiss, Sherryl Marshall and Curtis Fowlkes. The combination of ukulele, trombone, guitar and a concertina sounding piano produces some lovely harmonies.

“The Napier Project,” a new puppet show by Michelle Beshaw, created and performed with Deborah Beshaw and Theresa Linnihan presents two segments from this show, “The Piano Lesson” and “The Party Line” that have an “Our Town” feel to it. Small town gossip is excellently staged by using puppets peering through window panes to check in on their neighbors. The open staging techniques also make good use of simple light fixtures.

“Vatch Your Step: A Public Surveillance Announcement” is a video directed by Jenny Romaine with Tine Kindermann, Alan Zemel, Zalmen Mlotek, and the Klezkamp Youth Theater Workshop, a Yiddish folk art group. This summer project shot in black and white was made by teenagers whose message is that we are all immigrants to this country.

For a change of pace, Basil Twist presents his one man piece, “Singing in the Rain.” This toy theater show looks like it was designed to show off Basil’s talents as a graphic designer. The black and white two dimensional cut outs come to life, literally before our eyes as Basil produces a series of drawings right on the spot. Basil’s sense of timing and showmanship are certainly worth emulating.

The evening closes with one of the most peculiar acts I’ve ever seen, “Mad Heidi,” which lives up to it’s name. Created and conceived by Yvone Meier and performed by Jennifer Monson, “Mad Heidi” is more dance than puppetry. Ms. Monson appears nude throughout most of this flying walnuts there are shoes and forks suspended and giggled on strings. The skit concludes with Ms. Monson manipulating a push broom to clean up her mess. But no matter how much she sweeps there’s no cleaning up this act.

I left P.S. 122 not with visions of walnuts dancing in my head but a good feeling about what the Spaghetti Dinners do in general. It’s rare to have an opportunity to share ideas with fellow artists in such a convivial atmosphere. This event helps create a sense of community through art and food. Here’s hoping our plates are never empty.

(Thanks to Trudi Cohen for providing background information on the origins and purpose of the Monthly Spaghetti Dinners.)

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