Dek : Encinitas resident plays Mafioso in “A Roman Holiday”
It’s Christmas in July at the Coronado Playhouse, and Don Vitello has presents for everyone in La Famiglia – if they’ve been good. The Don is head of a cement business – and you know what happens to anyone who doesn’t play nice with the Family (Remember Luca Brasi in “The Godfather?” He wound up “sleeping with the fishes”).
The avuncular but intimidating Don is played to the hilt by Encinitas resident Tony Matarrese . It’s a small cameo role (he only enters near the end), but his looming, threatening presence is felt throughout the farcical comedy, “A Roman Holiday,” written and directed by Matt Thompson, who helms the Theater School at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Thompson had seen Matarrese audition at North Coast Repertory Theatre, where he understudied both leading roles in “The Drawer Boy” earlier this year.
“He kind of envisioned me playing the role of the Don when he was writing it,” says Matarrese . “It’s a very funny show.”
Matarrese gets a kick out of his character’s name. “ Vitello is veal,” he explains (as anyone who frequents Italian restaurants might know). “So he’s The Big Veal,’ kind of like the Big Enchilada. He makes cement shoes for anyone that gets outta line.
“And at the end,” Matarrese continues, “after all the mixups and mayhem, he comes in, dressed in a Santa jacket and shades, and makes sure everyone has a Merry Christmas – or else! He has his own fiefdom and he’s always thinking, ‘Don’t mess up my part of the city!’”
Matarrese is familiar with that kind of power and control. He spent his childhood in Chicago, where his mother and sister still reside.
“I grew up near Cicero,” he say ,. “ where Al Capone had his headquarters. The corner newsstand guy ran the local bookie joint. Some of my Dad’s friends were cops. Others were on the wrong side of the law. He once asked me, ‘You wanna be a wiseguy ? You wanna look over your shoulder the rest of your life?’ I guess I heard that!”
His father was first generation; his grandfather was from Bari, Italy (“by the Achilles tendon on the foot of the boot”). His grandmother was “from the toe, across from Sicily.”
So Matarrese comes by his portrayal of the Don naturally. It’s a welcome return to the stage for him, after a 20-year hiatus to raise kids and provide for his family (now his two daughters are grown and he’s divorced). He began his stage work at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where he earned a degree in acting and directing. He also studied dance: ballet, modern and jazz.
Then he returned to Chicago. That’s where he portrayed another soft-hearted gangster-type: Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls.”
Before making his way to San Diego, he acted in Steamboat Springs, CO (he played mean-spirited Curly in “Of Mice and Men”). In L.A., he did some TV and theater work, including the ultimate vulnerable tough-guy, Stanley Kowalski (“A Streetcar Named Desire,” in Santa Monica).
When he moved to Encinitas, he hooked into the Italian community, taking special pleasure in playing bocce, a ball game developed in Italy. He became president of the Encinitas Bocce Organization; now he’s treasurer.
“If you speak Italian,” he says, “you fit right in. I speak a little. It’s a fun environment – though it gets a little heated at times,” he adds with a chuckle.
One of the members is founder of the San Diego chapter of the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce (“we have 400-500 business owners in North County”). Thanks to Matarrese and “Roman Holiday” producer Vanessa Dinning, there will be an ‘Italian night’ when the group takes over the Coronado Playhouse.
Matarrese spends his days as a personal trainer, and he works at the pharmacy at Costco in Carlsbad. In his spare time, when he’s not acting, he cooks.
“Many of my relatives were restaurant owners or cooks,” he notes. “When I was 14 years old, I knew I wanted to act, and said I had to move to California. I was told that, before I could go, I’d have to learn to cook! Now I make Italian specialties from my father’s side and Greek specialties from my mother’s. I even catered an 80-person event for the bocce group.”
Which brings us back to the heavy Italian accent he sports in “A Roman Holiday. ”
“I thought back to some of the tough guys who were my Dad’s friends. I remembered some of those voices. And I talked to guys in the bocce group. It’s my 15 minutes of Italian fame. I’ve gotta make the most of it!”
“A Roman Holiday” runs through August 7 at the Coronado Playhouse, 1835 Strand Way.
Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm
Tickets ($20-25) are available at 619-435-4856 or www.coronadoplayhouse.com