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Putting the Icing on the Lily: Burlesque at its Local Best

“Dearly Departed” is a comedy set in and around the fictional towns of Lula and Timson, somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, during the 1990s, and the butt of the jokes is your stereotypical southern Baptist redneck. The program for the recent production at the AV Grange in Philo said the time was the present, but this was probably a reference to back when the play was written, although there are certainly plenty of the stereotypical rednecks still around to this day — with some living locally.

An honest demographer would have to admit that Anderson Valley — if not all of Northern California — is largely populated by people diametrically opposed to the redneck lifestyle; in a word, Liberals. And “Dearly Departed” played well in front of a packed house last Friday night. Not that the liberal elite were lampooning the local yokels — never a peep of that: Hush! But satire is a kind of mirror, to paraphrase Dean Swift, wherein we see everyone’s face but our own, and certainly all satire is local; but not only are there more than a few rednecks in our little community, there is also a little redneck in all of us. Or so the play, “Dearly Departed,” seems to argue.

Performed by The Anderson Valley Theatre Guild, “Dearly Departed” was directed by Rod Basehore. Mr. Basehore has retired from a long career of teaching theater in high schools and colleges, and now in retirement, he can’t seem to get it out of his blood. Which has been a cultural boon for the Anderson Valley.

The play is about a death in the Turpin family. A turpin is a species of turtle, common in the South East. Perhaps an analogy is intended. The family patriarch, Bud Turpin, dies early on, in the opening scene, from a heart attack perhaps induced by the Pentecostal zealotry of his wife and sister, Raynelle and Marguerite, respectively. The plot unfolds as the family, predictably dysfunctional, gathers to attend to the funeral arrangements.

The casting was uncannily apropos, as each part was played by actors who were able to find substantially more than “a little” of the various characters in themselves. I don’t know older actors Kent Rogers (who played Bud) nor Barbara Lamb (Raynelle). But I have met Patty Liddy (Marguerite) a few times and she infused her character with the infectious verve she brings to even casual greetings at social venues. Readers will remember from last week’s interview that she is an artist with a considerable range of talents. She plays the leering, sardonic Marguerite’s self-righteous sanctimony to the hilt, twisting the blade of her sharp lines in the wounds she inflicts with a scary delight. This is what killed Bud Turpin. That and some resentful spite which true believers the world over reserve for non-believers.

The pervasive influence of religion in the Turpin’s lives was delightfully delineated by the Joy For Life Gospel Singers, who sang throughout the performance. They are really very good. I would never go into a church to hear them (due to my respect for earthquakes and lightning-bolts), so I count myself lucky to have heard them at all.

This was my first excursion to the Grange Hall in Philo. It has a rural spaciousness, a roomy roadhouse feel. The architecture is at once stylish and practical. The white carpeting, for instance, was put up on the wall where the mud from the parking lot wouldn’t spoil it. (Or maybe it’s for sound absorption.) There were lots of padded old seats for the fortunate 60-or-so who got there early. The rest got modern seats, designed for the short attention span. I came early and stayed late.

This is what community is all about — the ability of a small town to entertain itself with deeply satisfying style. To take the big questions about Purpose, Meaning, Place, Love and Death, and answer them with a sense of detachment in a personally fulfilling perspective — and, sure, a few rollicking good laughs. When a small town like Boonville with its sibling settlements along Highway 128 can get together and laugh at themselves then redemption and, if not renewal, at least sustainability, is possible after all.

I say Redemption, because you can redeem this stuff anywhere. Look at what Garrison Keillor did with Prairie Home Companion! People are starving for a sense of community. But will people imitate his model? No. They call and complain to KZYX that they can’t hear Keillor on the NPR affiliate. For those who have come to loathe his smug musings about Lake Woebegone, this is a huge relief. Or, how about Michael Feldman’s wildly successful “What Do You Know” on NPR? The trivia quiz at Lauren’s hosted by Steve Sparks is more astute than Feldman’s gig and with the big band jumping at Lauren’s during the breaks, the music’s better than Feldman’s trio. But this isn’t in the Midwest — it’s here! Redemption, that’s what I’m talking about! This stuff is as welcome in the suburban heart as money is to a Scotch banker. And if people can’t get it on the radio, or commute to a show in the city, they’ll just do it themselves. Again, this is what community is all about.

I’ve only reviewed three plays in my career, the first three I’ve seen in my life. The first was “Be It Ever So Humboldt” by Recycled Youth at the Mateel Center in Redway; the next, “Hamlet” by Stone Ground at the Lions Club in Fort Bragg. So far, none of those reviews have been seen fit to print. I say this by way of disclaimer; not apologetically.

I have read a few theater reviews, however. Chiefly, Dorothy Parker’s from the New Yorker. But a few others, too. And while they’re all very insightful and erudite, Dorothy’s are the only ones that are really fun to read. In her reviews it’s like she barges into the crowded theater with a cigarette and a hangover, sloshing alcohol on everybody and shouting Fire! This is my idea of a critic.

But participation is what community is all about.

So when a friend suggested I go, I thought, well, these people have everything else -- talent, style, ambition — certainly, they deserve a critic. Okay, I’ll go.

Is the play about redemption?

Positively. Everybody gets redeemed in the end.

As the plot develops, we learn that the Turpins suffer the all-too-familiar resentments toward one another, such as unresolved sibling rivalries, unrequited spousal expectations, and unemployable offspring. This is fertile ground for drama; drama in the current slang sense. And the audience laughed off a lot of pent-up steam, nearly bringing the house down on a couple of occasions.

When the family comes together for the funeral, it unfolds that the older Turpin sibling, Ray-Bud (played by local psychologist (sic) Dan Mandelbaum), is likely to get stuck with the mortician’s bill, his younger brother Junior (Joe Petelle), having mismanaged a business opportunity that Ray-Bud regarded as hare-brained from its inception. Ray-Bud has spent his life in drudgery, working for a man he doesn’t even like, much less respect; his wife, Lucille (Leslie Hummel) is plain and practical and she has given him no children. Junior, on the other hand, has a passel of brats, a sexy wife, Suzanne (Nahara), and works for himself — albeit unprofitably. Junior has extravagant plans for the funeral casket and headstone, but Ray-Bud has calculated the expenses involved with the assiduity of a man who will be expected to pay for it all. Needless to say, his patience with his down-and-out brother is going to snap, as Junior decides that nothing but the best will be good enough for dear old dad.

With this battle between the brothers coming to a boil in the foreground, several other skirmishes are simmering on the back of the stove. Suzanne finds evidence of infidelity on Junior’s part, for instance.

Nahara (a master of the healing massage arts when not on stage) gives her character exuberance and petulance by turns, warming to a role that fits her as charmingly as her costumes, and when she steals the show with her amazing voice in a requiem at the funeral, we get a glimpse of Suzanne’s depth of character; heretofore, she has played the blonde-joke stereotype, and beeb patronized in this respect by the other characters. The brutally honest Aunt Marguerite consoles her on her standing in the community in light of Junior’s adultery, “They never liked you before; how can they think anything less of you now?” Along the way, Junior, who is on the brink of homicidal frustration with his neurotic spouse, finds what’s missing in their marriage and redeems it with a cup of grape slush.

Director Basehore, it turns out, recruited the players individually, having scouted them out in advance, he later said, rather than soliciting auditions. He used his well-trained eye to find actors with potential, then brought them along over the past five years, to fill the parts of this particular play, it seemed. At any rate, the casting was absolutely brilliant, the performances satisfying, the music superlative, and the play a huge success.

By coincidence, it was Rod Basehore’s 75th birthday on Friday and this gave the performance an extra edge, as I suspect the players wanted to break a leg or two on their mentor’s big day. It’s too bad the final show was last Saturday because it would be nice to have it run all summer, and those readers who neglected to go when they had the chance could redeem themselves!

The audience on Friday got redeemed, big time, roaring at all the ironic little hypocrisies of the fundamentalist preacher Reverand Hooker (Marcus Magdaleno), the shallow reading of scripture and narrow-minded denial in the recurring line “we’re not meant to know” being used to answer everything from mystical questions to ethical ones. Yes, they thought it was all outrageously ridiculous, especially when Marguerite’s chronically unemployed son Royce (John Hanes) tries to make sense of the cosmos by talking in metaphysical circles — literally, or course. But only the Friday before many of these same folks had watched with rapt, sober approval while the preacher of their own progressive cult, the Anderson Valley School administrator, a fellow whose name I haven’t bothered to learn, read a vapid little note by an anonymous eighth-grader as a suitable eulogy for Tom Smith at the Anderson Valley Graduation ceremonies. An adult, someone who had long worked with Smith and knew him well, someone who had prepared some dignified remarks, standing readily at hand to do this solemn duty, was totally ignored. How funny was that?

Before we answer, perhaps we should reconsider Dr. Swift’s simile about the mirror of satire.

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