Dancing on Her Grave

Human beings have reveled in the mocking of solemnity as early as the twelfth century, when subversive subdeacons rang church bells improperly as part of the annual Feast of Fools and food-fighting choir boys mischievously sang out of tune during the Feast of the Boy Bishop. It comes as no surprise, then, that Aunt Edith's Wake, an interactive dinner-theater show about a deceased woman's obnoxious friends and relatives, possesses a fair amount of similarly irreverent charm.

Presented by Venus Productions in a commodious meeting room on the third floor of the Executive Tower hotel downtown, the two-hour production makes for a mildly entertaining, if somewhat expensive, evening. After all, $35 per person seems a bit steep considering that drinks and parking aren't included and that you're actually paying to be harassed by actors while you attempt to savor a pleasant dinner of salad, stuffed chicken breast covered in light pastry, rice, herbed vegetables and your choice of dessert. (Caveat eater: Earlier in the show's run, the meal reportedly consisted of "gravy train"-like stew, stale rolls, overcooked vegetables and no dessert.)

That said, the impishly funereal proceedings are a far cry from the overpriced, overblown and interminable idiocy--not to mention the cheap food, cramped seating and horrendous acting--that permeated last year's local interactive debacle, Tony and Tina's Wedding. In fact, as written and directed by Mel Benetti (who portrayed the photographer in Tony and Tina), the talented performers in Aunt Edith's Wake earn generous, good-natured laughter, especially since their devil-may-care antics are confined to a clearly visible dance floor and an audience area that consists of eight comfortably arranged tables.

The action begins shortly after drink-swilling patrons make their way to a seating area for the start of the funeral service while Gre-gorian chants play in the background. As might be expected, most of the "guests" arrive noisily and late. We're introduced to Skippy (Dave Ballew) and Swa-rithra (Lynn Grasberg), a couple of finger-cymbal-playing new-agers who've made the trip down from Boulder in order to pay their final respects to friend Edith. Encouraging audience members to repeat the mantra "I bless, release and forgive Edith," the bleached-blond reiki master and his eternally smiling girlfriend periodically remind us all to "love, not hate" at crucial moments throughout the evening. In due time, we meet Sergei (Benetti), funeral director at Mortuary Cheycheskey, which, as pronounced by Benetti, sounds as though it's been named in honor of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. After taking a peek at Aunt Edith's distressed corpse (spectators are invited to proceed past the open coffin and shake hands with family members), you might conclude that the connection between the two monikers isn't a mere coincidence.

Then, Edith's brother Whiple (Chris Loffelmacher) and his church-lady wife, Gloria (Nancy Stidger), arrive with their lesbian daughter, Dale (Jennifer Lucero). They're joined by Edith's cosmetologist, Cha-Cha (Sherry Coca-Candelaria), her son, Jesus (Vicinte Garcia), Edith's oxygen-bottle-toting best friend, Ida (Lena Hart), and Edith's bulimic personal assistant, M.J. (Lucy Roucis). Rounding out the ragtag coterie of mourners are Edith's shyster lawyer (Ira Liss), his mail-order Russian bride, Katia (Shelly Bordas), a hairless pooch named Ching-Lao and a male nurse (Chadman Oliver) who's the founder of "Homo Nomo," an organization that offers a fourteen-step program for recovering homosexuals.

To their credit, the actors do their level best to amuse without becoming verbally abusive or overly confrontational. Some even manage to combine their considerable improvisational skills with Benetti's sketchy script to create the occasional well-executed sendup. Stidger's overbearing zealot, who leads the audience in a rendition of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," is particularly effective. And Bordas exudes a wonderfully repressed sexuality when she invites spectators to dance the macarena. True, most of the performers could use a lesson in simple table manners (such as during the aforementioned hovering-during-mealtime behavior), as well as a firmer grasp of what passes for merriment and what's simply annoying. Still, most of the bizarre, post-funeral vignettes--such as when Ida attempts to sing "Every Time We Say Good-bye" or M.J. reads a poem about her experiences in online chatrooms--contain at least a germ of humorous truth, though all of the scenes could use a more experienced hand in orchestrating them toward comic maturity. As with most funerals, director Benetti's campy production succeeds in illuminating the best--and, only rarely, the absolute worst--that his performers have to offer.

Aunt Edith's Wake, presented by Venus Productions through January 31 at the Executive Tower Inn, 1405 Curtis Street, 303-573-5931.

 
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