If high society threw a gala for homeless people each year, and the recipients of their charity were actually invited to the party, it might end up resembling Bag Ladies Ball, an interactive theater experience that's the brain- and heartchild of local playwright/director Melvyn Benetti. There's dinner, dancing and a vote for the queen of the ball involved, and when the audience files out of VFW Post #1, where the extravaganza takes place each Saturday night, cast members shake hands and ask folks how they liked the show. Talk about your walk on the wild side.
Benetti, whose previous dinner-theater comedies include such unorthodox titles as Aunt Edith's Wake and White Trash Family Reunion, dedicated this one to the seven homeless men murdered in downtown Denver in 1999. "If it had been seven Broncos or seven businessmen murdered, we'd still be hearing about it, and certainly all the murders would be solved by now," says Benetti, whose intention is to educate -- but with a light touch. And, he admits, that's a tricky boundary to define.
The characters help. For instance, there's Babs -- a LoDo barmaid who ended up on the street when her nightspot was sold to make lofts. And there's Leigha Rona, a curandera and healer; Baby, a one-time child star; and Sister Mary Toni, a former Loretto Heights nun. "Each has her own story of how she became homeless, and each is important," Benetti notes, explaining that these unfolding stories, told in the course of the ball, are meant to apply human faces to the disenfranchised.
"You could call it comedy with a heart," Benetti says. "It's got to be funny, but if you also deal with tragedy, you've got to make sure you're able to get the energy back up so audiences aren't stuck in a sad, dark place." And, he adds, if past audience response counts for anything, that formula works, even with your typically staid, baby-boomer, theatergoing public: "The secret is to get 'em out, entertain 'em, feed 'em, give them drinks -- and have them leave with something positive."
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