Dive into Dumpster

The winds blow mighty funny during Last Night at Orabella's.

The wizards responsible for the nonstop hilarity at Radio Music Theatre -- Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills, abetted behind the curtain by Mark Cain on lights and Pat Southard on sound effects and keyboard -- have been performing continually for 20 years and, in the process, have made the fictional Fertles of Dumpster, Texas, a small town near Houston, our most beloved dysfunctional family. Over the next five years, RMT will produce each of the 14 plays in the Fertle series one last time, and then call it quits. Last Night at Orabella's is the first play in the series.

The lunacy begins -- as any fine comedy should -- right smack in the middle of things. We're at Orabella's, Dumpster's only bar/dancehall, and, as the title says, tonight's the last night. Proprietor Uncle Al Peeler (Rich Mills, with great gray eyebrows glued on the rims of his glasses, munching a stogie) is selling the place. Since he's 22 months behind on his rent on a 24-month lease, it's time to give it up. So the town's loony inhabitants converge there for its last night.

Even Uncle Al's hapless employees have run up bar tabs. Gwenda (Vicki Farrell, in rhinestone cat-eye glasses, also munching a stogie) is hopelessly in lust with philandering Uncle Al and fruitlessly attempts to reseduce him. Country Wayne Conway (Steve Farrell), a horny urban cowboy who dreams of being a C&W star, is there, too, since this is the only place that ever hired him. He pens songs that combine country and rap -- as he calls them, "crap." (RMT's parodies are as much a part of the series' charm as are the denizens of Dumpster. Conway's song to one of the many women who've dumped him, "Good B-Y-E," is one of the show's highlights.)

Dumpster is the kind of place where Country Wayne and poodle-haired Bridgett accidentally whisper their forbidden love over an open microphone; where something ominous is swimming in Luminetta's gravy; where Dolly keeps talking about getting breast implants; and where the town's doctor -- squint-eyed, porkpie-wearing Doc Moore (in a brilliant turn by Steve Farrell) -- talks gibberish. Only in Dumpster would the local Chinese take-out joint serve fortune cookies that read, "You will be decapitated in a boating accident."

And then there's the fey sheriff (Farrell again), who stops the Dumpster Protection League from lynching a "stranger," browbeats the yahoos with words like "xenophobic hysterium" and calls Uncle Al "Java Man." "Look down in shame," he says with a lisp, "while I berate you." All the while, Blindman Jackson (Mills), who has returned to play one last gig at Orabella's, is so blind he believes he's black. "Do you think my parents know?" he wonders in shock.

To place the loonies in perspective, Farrell drops two "normal" characters into Orabella's, Don and Ellen. Since they're outsiders, the Dumpster residents are immediately suspicious. The new arrivals pave the way for exposition and a little family history. This plot device may be a bit creaky, but it works because the townsfolk are so much fun. We always want to know more about them. After the main Fertles are introduced in this first installment in the series, there's no more need for outsiders, and in the following plays the inmates take over completely.

Steve and Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills nail their characterizations using nothing more than a change of hat or a ratty wig. You won't find any better performing on a Houston stage than what these three ultra- talented actors accomplish through body language and voice. It's a primer on acting. And it's prime.

After the play's loose ends are loosely tied up, normal Don asks Bridgett why she stays in Dumpster, where, to his unexceptional eyes, nothing ever happens and nothing ever will. Bridgett doesn't hesitate. "I like it," she says. "It's home." Then she adds, with absolute comic sincerity, "It's where I am." Can't argue with that.

There's no place like Dumpster, and Mills and the Farrells conjure up this screwy universe with such complete mastery, it's a trifle disorienting when the lights come up and you step out into reality.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover