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Everybody's family is nuts. Yes, even your rich brother's. Yes, even that button-downed, perfectly coiffed clan who looks down their noses at everybody at church on Sunday. Behind the hair product and blinding white grins, though, you can bet they've got all the issues and characters your family has: the foxy grandma, the casually criminal uncle, the holier-than-thou sister, the brother-in-law who just doesn't know when to let his Burt Reynolds mustache and spectacular mullet fade into history. Stir a little holiday stress into the mix, and that bunch of nuts can rapidly fold themselves into quite a fruitcake.
The universality of familial weirdness has been helping keep Vicki and Steve Farrell — the husband and wife acting team who owns and operates The Joint cabaret theater in Argenta — on stage for years.
With acting partner Brett Ihler — the third leg of their tripartite troupe "The Main Thing" — they're putting on their "A Fertle Holiday," a two-act musical comedy about the slightly off-kilter Fertle Family of Dumpster, Ark., starting Friday, Nov. 22, at The Joint. Written by Steve Farrell, the show features original music, hilarious riffs on rural family love and strife, and each actor playing a seeming cast of thousands via lightening-fast costume changes — mother Mildred, Uncle Al, mumbling Doc Moore, "slow" brother Earl, and others.
Vicki and Steve met in 1972 while both were performing on a showboat on the Mississippi River. After moving to Houston in 1977, they helped start and run The Comedy Workshop, a legendary comedy club that served as an incubator for a host of great comics, including Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler and Janeane Garofalo. In addition to stand-up, the club did sketch comedy. The Fertle Family grew from one of the sketches Steve wrote for one of those shows, and soon became a beloved Houston favorite. The Fertles followed Steve and Vicki to North Little Rock when they moved to Arkansas awhile back, and have steadily gained a following here since then.
Fertle family creator Steve was born into a huge Iowa clan with 15 aunts and uncles and countless first cousins. He said the Fertles (a slight variation on his family name) are largely based on his own experiences growing up.
"I just realized as I was talking to people that everybody has the same types in their families, again and again," he said. "There's the Blowhard, and the Squeaky Wheel and the Loving Mom Who Cooks. ... There are a lot of archetypal characters who were universal. Though it's based on my family, the reaction we got after doing the Fertle comedies was, 'You've got to meet my brother. Man, that's him up there!' It kind of functions as therapy for people, especially if they bring their relatives here."
Steve has written 14 full-length shows about the Fertles and their adventures, plus another 10 long sketches or one-acts. The characters, he said, are very real to him now. He bases many of his plotlines around typical family gatherings — which are always ripe for comedy and absurdity: holiday gatherings weddings, graduations, funerals, births, road trips.
Though Southern families have a reputation for being the quirkiest in the land, the Farrells said that there is a universal appeal to comedy about weird broods, one that translates no matter where they are. "I think rural America is pretty much the same in every part of the country," Vicki said. "We've taken our show to New York and L.A., and people still relate to it anywhere you go. It's just rural anywhere in America."
"And people think it's written about them anywhere they go," Steve added. "Families are universal."
While having three actors play up to 20 parts is very funny to watch in and of itself — a kind of backstage ballet that is easily worth the price of admission — it requires a level of planning and choreography that approaches the complexity of that three-dimensional chess Spock played on "Star Trek."
"How do you rotate the entrances and exits so it seamlessly feels like a crowd at a family reunion?" Steve asked. "Somebody always has to be in the process of saying: 'Well, Momma would know! Momma?' and then walks off while another character walks on. The dialogue continues while there's a [costume] change being made. There's a flow. And we have to not run into each other. Even worse, it's all about: 'Where's my hair? Where's my hat? Where's my glasses? ... ' It's a real puzzle."
"We've had many people after the show say, 'I kept waiting for more people to come out at the curtain call,' " Vicki said with a laugh.
Brett Ihler joined The Main Thing about a year and a half ago. He said he had to play catch-up to slot into such an established acting team and the Fertle lineup, but has since come to feel very rewarded by his work. "It initially was intimidating because of their track record and everything they'd done," he said, "but they are both so professional and so good that it was really easy to mix in with them. There have been times when I stand backstage and think: This is so much easier than anything I've ever done. ... This is so much more fun and active and alive."
The appeal of the Fertle shows, Steve said, is the familiarity of it, the feeling of knowing or being related to real-life counterparts to all the characters onstage. The Farrells and Ihler said that many times, audience members come to them after a Fertle play and say they recognized members of their own family — though never themselves, Steve said with a laugh.
"I think it's comforting to people to know that they're not the only freak on the planet," Steve said. "They may get to thinking their family is dysfunctional, but if you take a look at the rest of the world, you'll see that we're all in the same boat. The same archetypal characters keep recurring. I suspect that if I spoke Mandarin, I could go find some tiny, rice-growing village and there'd still be a drunk and a blowhard and an athlete and a sexy woman. It's all the same things."
"A Fertle Holiday" runs at 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday, from Nov. 22 to Jan. 11, at The Joint, 301 Main St., North Little Rock. Admission is $20, and reservations are advised. Beer, coffee, cocktails, wine and sodas are available during the show. For more information, visit their website at thejointargenta.com, or call 372-0205.