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Fertle Family Values

For the over-Sugar Plummed, Scrooged and Messiahed among us

Here's a holiday recipe from the ersatz kitchen of Mildred Fertle, the happy, scrappy doyenne of the Singing Fertles from Dumpster, Texas. It's a Fertle favorite, a stunner of a dessert to die for: butter pie. The recipe's not copyrighted, but it should be, so I'm at liberty to print it here at no cost:

10 pounds of butter
5 pounds of sugar
1 baked pie shell
As much nondairy whipped topping as you can shovel on

Cream, if you can, all the butter with the sugar. Pour into the shell. Let it set (or harden, if you will) in the fridge. Cut into golden slabs and serve with gobs of the nondairy topping. Your family will groan in appreciation. You'll actually hear their arteries closing.

Mildred Fertle (Vicki Farrell, with Rich Mills and Steve 
Farrell) makes a mean butter pie.
Courtesy of RMT
Mildred Fertle (Vicki Farrell, with Rich Mills and Steve Farrell) makes a mean butter pie.

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Through January 15, $18.
Radio Music Theatre, 2326 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

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Here's another recipe for you. Take three fantastically talented actors and let them play all the characters in a side-splitting comic satire that just might rival Molière. Toss in enough spice and politically incorrect dysfunction for the adults and enough goofy situations and sound effects for the kids, add the correct amount of sentiment-without-sentimentality seasoning, throw in a dash of musical parody, and shake liberally so the entrances and exits occur with split-second timing. Pour out onto a small stage. Laugh yourself silly.

If you've been Sugar Plummed, Scrooged and Messiahed enough for the holidays, then Radio Music Theatre's A Fertle Holiday is the perfect season's greetings for you: a family Christmas show featuring the funniest damned family on earth, or at least within a 25-mile radius of Houston. The loonies at RMT have been entertaining us with its 14-play Fertle series for 20 years.

In this first of the series, the singing Fertle clan gathers from far and wide for Christmas. Retired Baptist preacher Ned (Steve Farrell) and wife Mildred (Vicki Farrell) bicker over the scrawny tree with a three-legged stand Ned brings home. From Bangor, Maine, daughter Justicena (Rich Mills) and husband Pete de Pugh (Steve Farrell) drive to Dumpster in their Chevy Nova with little hellion Damien (Vicki Farrell), who keeps zapping his parents with his Captain Proton stun gun. Justicena has purloined everything not nailed down at Motel 6: soap, towels, even the Gideon Bible. Later, she will give them as Christmas gifts.

The other daughter, Carol (Vicki Farrell), and her well-off husband, Roger (Mills), fly in on their private plane with spoiled brat Curtis (Steve Farrell), who keeps whining that "I am not even believing this is happening." They plan to stay one night.

Back in Dumpster, Uncle Al (Mills) plans his beloved wife Orabella's funeral for Christmas Eve. In his Santa hat, he tries to spread holiday cheer, but he can't get out more than a single "ho" before bursting into tears. "That's all I got," he blubbers before running from the room. Then there's Earl, Ned and Mildred's grown son (Mills), who's been "not quite right" ever since he banged his head. He's sweet and contented with himself and "knows a lot more than you think," he tells everyone. Ned and Mildred use him as a TV antenna for better reception.

The other son, loser Lou (Steve Farrell), and his sexpot wife, Bridgette (Vicki Farrell), live nearby. Lou desperately wants to leave this ultra-small town but doesn't know where to go. Bridgett and sister-in-law Justicena have been rivals since high school, ever since Bridgette stole her boyfriend. That Justicena's boyfriend happened to be as gay as Oscar Wilde doesn't faze Justicena, who constantly refers to Bridgett as a "slut." Lou, still stuck in high school mode, wears his letter jacket from Central High, with its big S (as in Sentral?).

Of course, other goofy townsfolk pop in throughout the series. In this one, it's Doc Moore (Steve Farrell), whose cameo appearance stops the show. He speaks in gibberish, the verbal equivalent of a doctor's handwriting. Only Mildred can decipher this Moore-speak. His truly bizarre monologues are hilarious.

This is the crazy world the Fertles inhabit. In A Fertle Holiday, author Steve Farrell keeps the action nonstop and the laughs constant. Bridgette's scalloped corn turns deadly. Damien turns his rocket launcher upon the neighborhood, shouting, "Die, Santa Claus, die!" The family plays a "plumbing and wiring" edition of Trivial Pursuit. Curtis entertains the family "as that lovable Jew, Tevye," reprising his leading role from the school musical, Fiddler on the Roof. And Earl falls asleep by the cold stove, remembering its past heat. All the while, the family dynamic becomes as fractured as a kaleidoscope. Yet it comes together by play's end in a wonderful, fulfilling pattern of caring and love.

"Nails are glue," Lou adamantly states during Trivial Pursuit. Once it's out of his big stupid mouth, even he realizes how dumb he sounds, but he continues saying it to save face. It's such a perfect example of our human frailty that we naturally root for him even while he makes a fool out of himself. It's this warm heart at the satire's center that gives the Fertle Holiday series its enduring power. For all their faults -- and, boy, do they have them in spades -- we care for these cartoon underdogs. Fertle family values are admirable qualities for any season.

 
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