Thanks to Photoshop, the whole family (played by 
    Rich Mills, Steve Farrell and Vicki Farrell) is brought 
    together for a picture.
Thanks to Photoshop, the whole family (played by Rich Mills, Steve Farrell and Vicki Farrell) is brought together for a picture.

Delightful Dysfunction

In A Fertle Holiday, a nice little family unit takes a Christmas trip to see their Fertle relatives, stopping at a Motel 6 along the way. There's Fertle daughter Justicena (Rich Mills), her milquetoast husband, Pete DePugh (Steve Farrell), and their spawn from hell, Damien (Vicki Farrell), who zaps his parents with his Captain Proton stun gun at every inappropriate occasion.

The motel stay provides Justicena with a one-stop-shopping extravaganza. She purloins everything in the room that's not nailed down: soap, towels, magazines, postcards, even the Gideon Bible. These will be her Christmas presents to the family. But Pete's concerned. "I'd hate to go to hell for stealing a Bible," he whines, screwing up his face as if sucking a lemon before getting zapped again by Damien.

"Why do they put them in the room, if they don't want them taken?" Justicena shrieks in a menopausal fit, shaking her curled poodle hair like Louis XIV.


A Fertle Holiday

Radio Music Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Through January 14. $20.

Justicena's skewed logic runs rampant throughout the family like a bad gene. And it's deliciously, devilishly played out by Radio Music Theatre's trio of ultra-talented actors in Steve Farrell's epic, 14-play comic saga of the singing Fertle Family from Dumpster. A Fertle Holiday, the first in the series, is as much a Houston Christmas tradition as the Alley's Christmas Carol, the Symphony's Messiah and Houston Ballet's Nutcracker. Only it's funnier and more wicked and low-rent.

Of course, Justicena, Pete and Damien are just tips of the Fertle iceberg. With blurred speed, a wig is removed, a cigar's inserted in a mouth and a door slams. Now standing in front of us are Uncle Al, mom Mildred and son Lou, and the wacky tale continues to spin merrily without skipping a beat.

Uncle Al (Mills, with bushy eyebrows pasted to the outside of his glasses) always plays Santa Claus for the clan, but he's horribly depressed over the recent death of his wife. Her funeral is scheduled for...Christmas Day. "Buck up," Lou tells Al with his own brand of compassion. "She can only die once." Sad sack Al tries to stir up some cheer but can muster only a single "ho." "That's all I got," he blubbers uncontrollably before running from the room.

Mildred (Vicki Farrell), the matriarch who never gets it right, wants perfection on this one day of the year when her whole family gets together. That means a great buffet on clean paper plates and the family's favorite dessert, butter pie. When told that daughter-in-law Bridgett is bringing scalloped corn, she lets out a gleeful "wheee" that's as close to demented happiness as can be.

Loser son Lou (Steve Farrell) still wears his high school jacket, appliquéd with a big S (his best days were at Dumpster's Sentral High). He craves the riches that sister Carol (Vicki Farrell) has found in California and isn't amused when she, her husband, Roger (Rich Mills), and their gay-in-training son Curtis (Steve Farrell) fly into Dumpster on a chartered plane. They live in "San Di-damn-ego," Lou hisses with envy.

But that's just the beginning of this family's dramas. Justicena hates Lou's wife, the trampy Bridgett, and accuses her of stealing her high school boyfriend. Prissy Curtis, who has to sleep on the foldout table, spars with Damien. "You're going to hell," he yells. "I am in hell," Damien coolly responds. When Ned (Steve Farrell) embraces Justicena, he says, "I think you get prettier every year." But before she can bask in the glow of Dad's compliment, he adds, "Of course, I'm remembering what you looked like last year."

None of these squabbles fazes the Fertles' youngest son, Earl (Rich Mills, with shoulders hunched up to his ears and eyes squinted shut), who happily doubles as the living rabbit ears for the family TV. He's been slow ever since he hit his head -- in fact, he's been hitting his head a lot. "But I know more than people think," he says craftily as hellion Damien wheedles him out of his allowance. Later on, dull little Earl turns the tables on know-it-all Lou and makes a profit, to boot.

Ned and Lou fall deathly ill from Bridgett's "pretty damn green" corn pudding, which brings on, for Act II's opener, the show-stopping Doc Moore (Steve Farrell in funhouse mirror glasses). Doc spouts an undecipherable form of jumbled jive talk that has to be heard to be believed. He speaks like a doctor writes, and only Mildred understands his verbal hieroglyphics. Yet to come are Curtis's "alarming," Rockettes-inspired "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, Damien's rocket-launcher attack on Santa and Lou's infamous "nails are glue" routine, performed while the family plays the Plumbing and Electrical Edition of Trivial Pursuit.

All ends happily for the Fertle clan, sort of -- anyway, as happily ever after as this dysfunctional family can hope for. But this wonderful satire makes us appreciate anew our own whacked-out families. What better way to start the New Year -- laughing all the way.


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