Corrections or additions?

This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the October 8,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Stage, a Princeton Mom Sheds Her Inhibitions

On stage at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater, Mary

Martello is positively wanton. As the German Baroness and brothel

dominatrix in "Cafe Puttanesca," a world premiere musical

by Michael Ogborn, this Princeton actress is a fallen woman, a veteran

prostitute who can regale us with tales of her escapades without

flinching.

The show, which opened in September and continues through Sunday,

November 2, is finding favor with the city’s ardent theatergoers.

Out of her stage character, Martello is a charming, articulate,

reserved woman who looks back on a stage career that spans decades,

and a personal life that has made acting an ongoing challenge.

"If I was acting, I was worrying about my kids. If I was with

the kids, I was wondering whether I’d ever perform again," says

Martello, who is unflinchingly honest about the particular push-pull

balancing act of women who choose to act. "Nobody could ever argue

that this was easy. But for me, it was not even a question — I

had to do both," says this mother of four, including a 11-year-old

still at home.

Martello was only seven years old herself back in Lansing, Michigan,

when a neighbor overheard her belting out the hymn, "Do Lord,

Oh Do Lord, Remember Me." That neighbor convinced Martello’s

mother

that the child had a voice worthy of attention — and singing

lessons.

Her first teachers, David and Evelyn Machtel, did more than just teach

her music. "They had four sons, and kind of adopted me into their

family as a daughter," recalls Martello. "I owe them a great

deal."

By age eight, the talented child was in a televised Christmas show

hosted by Johnny Carson, who advised the little girl, in true show

business tradition, to "go out there and break a leg" in her

number with Florence Henderson. Martello remembers the exchange to

this day. "I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about,

or why he’d say a thing like that."

But Martello did "break a leg," at least in the show biz

context,

and she continued to perform through her later childhood and high

school years, singing in church choirs, weddings, and funerals. And

that might have been that: Martello married young, had three children

early in her life, and struggled to take some music classes at Lansing

Community College and later at Michigan State College.

In 1984, her husband was transferred to the Princeton area, and by

that time, her first three children were in school. "So I began

going to New York and working with the Light Opera of Manhattan. It

was a steady gig that I could manage," she says.

In the summer of 1985, the then-infant Passage Theater Company invited

Martello to perform in Trentonian William Mastrosimone’s play "The

Undoing." The production was so successful that it was extended,

and Martello then performed in several subsequent Passage productions,

including "Talking With" and "March of the Falsettos."

At about the same time, the transplanted Michigan actress began her

association with McCarter Theater. This was during the era when Nagle

Jackson was artistic director of a resident repertory company at

McCarter. Her wide range of works there included "Faustus in

Hell," "Under Milk Wood," "As You Like It,"

"Dividing the Estate," and her most enduring role as Ghost of

Christmas Past in "A Christmas Carol," a tradition Martello

continued for seven seasons.

Meanwhile, Martello, who had divorced, remarried actor Todd Lewis,

now owner of the Right Touch, a therapeutic massage parlor in

Princeton. And this spunky actress continued a summer stock gig in

Denver in "Tartuffe" through the sixth month of her fourth

pregnancy. Once again, she faced the classic challenges of home and

work, but says she wouldn’t have changed a thing.

After a brief hiatus to spend time with Brennan, her youngest, Mary

Martello looked towards Philadelphia and its burgeoning theater scene,

for the next chapter of her career. "The management at McCarter

had changed, and it was ‘out with the old, in with the new,’"

says Martello.

Philadelphia welcomed the actress with open arms.

Martello’s credits include extensive work at the Walnut Street

Theatre, including major roles in "Sound of Music" and

"Damn Yankees," and more recently, at the Arden, where

"Cafe Puttanesca" was born out of an extensive workshop in

which the Princeton actress participated.

Seeing the show spring to life in a full-scale production has been

particularly gratifying. The Arden’s world premiere features a book

co-written by Michael Ogborn, who is the show’s composer and lyricist.

Terrence J. Nolen, who is also co-founder and producing artistic

director of the Arden, co-wrote the book and is director of the

production.

Even within the four-person ensemble cast, Martello’s role as the

Baroness is pivotal, and she has won both critical and popular acclaim

for her performance as the prostitute who is about to "go

straight,"

marry a soldier, and become an American housewife.

"I love the Baroness, although I admit to being a bit reserved,

maybe even prudish," said Martello, who found herself in this

hilarious but bawdy production that has three "ladies of the

night"

exchanging quips and anecdotes, much of it through music, against

the backdrop of a post-World War II cafe in Amsterdam. Sharing the

brothel’s roster of would-be aristocrats are Tracie Higgins as the

Duchess and Jilline Ringle as the Marquesa.

Laced with naughty limericks and brightened by Ogborn’s music, which

runs the gamut from sultry to rousing to romantic and poignant,

"Cafe Puttanesca" reflects the life and times of prostitutes

who worked their way through wartime Europe, and whose repartee

reveals that they’ve seen and done just about everything. But as tough

as these

women are, they are still vulnerable. Audiences get glimpses of the

three women’s shattered dreams and lost illusions as they alternate

turns in the spotlight. While the prevailing mood is humor, there

are moments of pathos, too.

Martello discovered that audiences are responding to the show with

delight. "I really had to work to be comfortable with some of

the script — taking off my skirt at age 50 and standing there

without it for all the world to see wasn’t easy. But I actually got

used to it, and so far, no one has fainted at the sight!"

For the actress, a recent glimpse out at a couple on the front row

of the Arden was validation enough of how "Cafe Puttanesca"

is affecting audiences.

"There was a very dignified couple in their late 60s or early

70s sitting there, and turning to look at one another and laugh with

absolute delight. I realized that Michael Ogborn (playwright) knew

what he was doing when he went for this simple, funny, bawdy story

that makes people leave the theater smiling. And these days, that’s

no small thing."

— Sally Friedman

Cafe Puttanesca, the Arden Theatre, 40 North Second

Street,

Philadelphia, 215-922-1122. $24 to $40. Www.ardentheatre.org.

Through Sunday, November 2.


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