Southern Gothic Goofs

A reunited cast creates a crackerjack revival at the Avenue Theater.

You're not just going out for an evening's amusement when you attend Dearly Departed at the Avenue Theater; you're participating in a prolonged goodbye to a Denver institution. John Ashton, the impresario who kept things hopping at the Avenue through twelve successful years, is closing up shop. The owners of the building plan live music for the far-from-soundproof venue next door, a development that makes theater performances impossible. Ashton (once, it must be confessed, a colleague of mine at this paper) is searching for a new space and meanwhile enjoying a farewell drama as drawn out as Garbo's in Camille, though hardly as lugubrious.

So the audience is jovial and informal, filled with well-wishers. More important, the cast features veterans from both of the Avenue's past productions of Dearly Departed (one in the early '90s, the other between 1999 and 2000). They know the play inside out, they're completely relaxed, and they're clearly enjoying themselves -- and each other -- hugely. You'd need a heart of ice not join in the merriment.

The play itself is not much more than a series of skits, all of them based on the shopworn premise that there's humor aplenty in the stereotypical Southern backwoods lifestyle --

Bill Berry (as Marguerite) blisters Michael Katt in Dearly Departed.
Larry Laszlo
Bill Berry (as Marguerite) blisters Michael Katt in Dearly Departed.

trailers, weight problems, macaroni dishes, menial jobs, religiosity and, finally, a tendency to dress badly and leave overstuffed furniture in the yard. It's saved from mean-spiritedness by the fact that some of the scenes really are hilarious and that, at times, the characters' passions spill out of the framework and you sense that one of them genuinely cares about another. Add to this the warmth and talent of the reunited Avenue cast members -- not to mention the occasional musical number they perform -- and you've got one of the most entertaining evenings of theater around.

This is how it all begins: Seated at the breakfast table while his wife, Raynelle, reads him a fire-and-brimstone letter from his sister, Marguerite, Bud drops dead of a stroke. The family comes together to bury him. Members include Marguerite (played by Bill Berry in drag) and her feckless son, Royce, and the dynamics between these two provide some of the funniest sequences of the evening. Son Ray-Bud is perhaps the sanest and most thoughtful member of the clan; his wife, Lucille, is forever trying to soothe those around her while she herself quivers with tension and her unresolved desire for a child. Also present are Bud and Raynelle's daughter, Delightful, who spends all her time stuffing her face; Junior -- broke because of a scheme to build a cleaning machine for parking lots -- and his overwrought, betrayed and child-harassed wife, Suzanne; and a number of incidental characters such as Juanite the Yam Queen and Nadine, mother of eight children (including Geraldo and Oprah). Put them all together and you've got enough dysfunction to keep the Southern Gothic tradition going for the next decade.

As Ray-Bud, Tupper Cullum actually provides an odd sort of gravity that anchors the manic goings-on around him. His looks of slow puzzlement are also hugely funny, and there's a great moment at the funeral service where he simply explodes and whips the entire screaming family into line. Judy Phelan-Hill is an excellent Raynelle. These are both strong, centered actors whose work is so economical you might miss the extent of their talent. Pam Clifton's Suzanne is wonderfully over the top -- whiny, outrageous, infuriating and full of vitality, her hair, clothes and sense of self flying off messily in all directions. As sanctimonious Marguerite, Bill Berry deploys a peevish fastidiousness about the mouth, as well as hypnotic vocal rhythms. Michael Katt and Eric Weber provide differing, though equally convincing portraits of frustrated and powerless Southern manhood. Amie MacKenzie is a crazed and oddly sympathetic Lucille, while Cini Bow morphs from slow, pallid Delightful into jittery speed-talking Nadine with ease. Chris Willard effectively fills a number of interesting smaller roles, and Denise Perry is terrific as Juanite.

All of the production values are appropriately funky, with actors thumping furniture around during the scene changes and, in the half-light, Berry making quite a production out of unfolding a cheap card table, leg by leg. It all feels relaxed and down-home and as it should be.

The Avenue's next and final offering is Murder Most Fowl, another old and long-running favorite that was written by Ashton during his Westword years (when, he's confessed in the past, he was supposed to have been working on news stories). Murder's run begins June 7.

 
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