Everythings Relative

When ads for low-priced turkeys start replacing those for post-Halloween candy deals, smart shoppers everywhere begin preparing to deal with an even scarier apparition: the visiting relative. After all, even though most people make an effort to pretend to love their chromosomal cousins, holiday reunions are nearly always marked by ghastly, relationship-testing episodes.

Just in case anybody wants to participate vicariously in more dysfunctionality, Venus Productions is offering up White Trash Family Reunion at the VFW, an interactive dinner-theater piece about a fictional family from Rico, Colorado, "home of the world's largest donut." Directed by local writer Mel Benetti, who appeared in Tony and Tina's Wedding a couple of years back and wrote and directed last season's Aunt Edith's Wake, the work is being presented on the second floor of Denver's VFW Post Number One. Benetti says he chose the home of the nation's first VFW chapter for its welcoming atmosphere and the management's willingness to be flexible. In addition to being "an oasis that can accommodate our needs," Benetti says that the post, which operates a cozy, down-home bar that's open to the public, "reminds me of the small town where I recently attended a family reunion."

When he went to his own family get-together, Benetti was surprised by the wide variety of stranger-than-fiction stories, oddball characters and "out-there situations" that spoke to him in a dramatic way, so he decided to articulate the universal family dynamics that most of us regard as peculiar to our own kith and kin. More importantly, he wanted to retain the typical reunion's suffocating aspects by crafting a play "that wasn't sacred-cow theater, where you sit in the dark for two hours and pretend to be detached from what's going on."

To that end, the cast of characters reads like a laundry list of Overdone Talk Show Guests. There's a gay man who's recently come out of the closet, a nymphomaniacal daughter, a pregnant teenager ("a recurring pattern for the women in this family"), a bitter matriarch, a Chicana who's been "received well by some but not all of her relatives," a religious zealot, a muscle-headed teen who wants to be a professional wrestler, and a grandmother who's celebrating her 69th birthday by receiving a few gag gifts from theatergoers. As the play unfolds, each member of the dreaded Mulligan clan relates his/her/its litany of memories/ emotional wounds/experiences.

Although audience members are encouraged to dress in their best white-trash attire, they shouldn't worry about being roped into the action against their will. "If people don't want to participate, we leave them alone," Benetti promises. But in an effort to offer spectators an opportunity to join in, the actors will lead spirited renditions of line dances such as the Cotton-Eyed Joe. And with "all the country cooking you can eat" -- the menu includes breast of chicken with potatoes, tomatoes, bacon and "a lot of spices," as well as rice, rolls and Jell-O salad -- Benetti has high hopes that his sendup will make for an entertaining evening of sarcasm and serious thought. "We explore issues of love, acceptance and reconcilement," he says. "We just happen to do it with a bunch of slack-jawed yokels." Given the $39 ticket price, though, it's clear that Benetti isn't looking to fill the audience with K-mart shoppers.

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Jim Lillie

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