ROCK ISLAND -- Kateri DeMartino loves to make people laugh as an actress and improv comedienne.
Coming off a tough year, in which the blunt, wise-cracking Massachusetts native lost her father to cancer and her boyfriend to a breakup, Ms. DeMartino stars in a new limited-run comedy, "Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage," at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse. It opens this Wednesday and runs to March 22.
"It's actually pretty funny," Ms. DeMartino said this week of the two-person, 90-minute show. It tells of Miss Abigail, the most sought-after relationship expert to the stars (think Dr. Ruth meets Emily Post), and her sexy sidekick Paco (who's secretly in love with her), as they travel the world teaching "how-to's" on dating, mating, and marriage.
"It's advice people can really apply," the actress said. "A quote in it I really love is, 'Love cannot be bought, but it can be taught.' There's a wonderful mix of comedy and silly aspects, but what she says, her philosophies, are really accurate and can apply."
The tips run the gamut, starting with single people -- how to flirt, start a conversation, where to go on a date, what to do on a date, what not to do, when to get married, and how to maintain a healthy relationship, she said. "You need to find out what someone else's definition of love is. That's important -- find out if you're on the same page."
"In the script, there's really a lot of solid advice," Ms. DeMartino said. "It's kind of cool, like, that's good to know for the next time. So, it's kind of ironic I had my heart broken and I get the thing as a love therapist. I find it really funny. They say the best revenge is success."
Named after the first Native American Catholic saint, Ms. DeMartino grew up dancing ballet, playing piano and acting in high school. "I loved performing. I would always be the little entertainer at family dinner parties," she said.
She graduated at the age of 20 from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where she received her bachelor's in theater. While at NYU, she had the actress Felicity Huffman (later a star of TV's "Desperate Housewives") as her acting professor for over two years. Ms. DeMartino also acted in the Atlantic Theater Company, which was started by David Mamet and William H. Macy (Ms. Huffman's husband and former teacher).
She went on to study Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and spent 11 years in Los Angeles. In addition to acting, Ms. DeMartino performed stand-up comedy in L.A., including as a drag queen character known as Tranny Annie.
She earned a big break in early 2003, by winning a nationwide contest to be a guest co-host for a week on "Live With Regis and Kelly" while Kelly Ripa was on maternity leave. Ironically, at the time she worked in sales for a dating service.
"Being on Regis was weird, because it was overnight fame," Ms. DeMartino said. "That whole experience was surreal," she said, noting one day she was in the green room with Diane Sawyer, Chris Rock, Vin Diesel and Gregory Hines.
From that, she won a development deal for a TV show and $10,000, and she was cast on one episode of "Scrubs" (2006). In film, Ms. DeMartino has acted with Jeremy Renner in "Neo Ned" (2005) and Cameron Diaz in "In Her Shoes" (2005), and she appeared in one season of the improvised reality show "Instant Recall" on the Game Show Network in 2010.
Ms. DeMartino, though, got burned out from Hollywood and went to law school -- earning a law degree from Southwestern University (in L.A.) in 2009, with an emphasis in entertainment and criminal law.
"L.A. can be really tough on the soul. I love competition, so that's not it," she said of show biz. "I just felt, I didn't feel intellectually fulfilled enough. My whole family is doctors and lawyers. I was doing it because I love the law and I always wanted to learn more."
Ms. DeMartino worked for the L.A. city attorney while in school and worked in a courtroom. "It was really cool and I loved it. But I was sitting there, and kept wishing it was a 'Law & Order' set," she said, leading her back to acting.
About two years ago, she moved back home (Longmeadow, Mass.) to care for her father, who had pancreatic cancer and passed away last year.
In the Circa show, Ms. DeMartino puts her improv skills to use in the interactive bits with audience participation. Among them are a dance, a quiz called "Love, Lust or Stalking," and teaching flirtation techniques.
Her castmate is Jonathan Iglesias, a graduate of The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts who has an extensive resume of TV, film, theater and modeling credits. The director is Warner Crocker, in his second Circa credit after last year's "Southern Crossroads."
-- What: "Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage." -- When: 7:15 p.m. performances on March 12, 14, 15, and 19-22, with a 1:15 p.m. show Wednesday, March 12. -- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island. -- Tickets: $47.25 (including dinner buffet) for evening shows; $41.75 (including plated lunch) for matinee, available at 309-786-7733, Ext. 2, or circa21.com.