By Eric Marchese
There is no such place as Tuna, Texas, but since 1981, this 'third-smallest town' in the Lone Star state has gained immortality thanks to three men who built a franchise, and created a matched set of cult classics, from a simple party skit based on a political cartoon.
Those men, director Ed Howard and actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, first staged 'Greater Tuna' in Austin, Texas, 32 years ago. Since then, the trio has written and performed three sequels.
Each 'Tuna' play is a series of short scenes built around the same handful of characters - long-suffering matron Bertha Bumiller, chain-smoking firearms dealer Didi Snavely, humane society advocate Petey Fisk, and morals advocate Vera Carp, to name a few, with Sears and Williams each playing 10 or more characters.
The duo have criss-crossed the U.S. performing the various 'Tuna' shows, including several Southern California productions. The question is whether other actors can successfully step into the many roles they originated.
Judging by Costa Mesa Playhouse's new production of 'Greater Tuna,' the answer is 'yes' - but it's a qualified yes recognizing that while highly talented actors may attempt to fill not just Sears' and Williams' shoes but those of their by-now beloved characters, the results just may not be as satisfying.
One can hardly fault Kyle Myers, who as the director of CMP's production fills Howard's role, or Karl Schott and Robin L. Watkins, the actors taking over for, respectively, Williams and Sears.
Asking anyone to try to duplicate such a singular show without necessarily delivering a slavish imitation is a tall order. Copy Sears and Williams and you're hardly being original; stray too far from their characterizations and you risk falling short of creating an evening laden with gratifying laughter.
If there's a happy medium, what's on hand at CMP just may be it. Half the battle, of course, lies in the abilities of the two actors to quickly change costumes unseen, often while continuing to rattle off dialogue. And Watkins and Schott have gotten that challenging aspect down cold.
The rest of the 'Tuna' equation requires precise comic timing wedded to a sharp eye for satire. Each 'Tuna' play paints an affectionate look at the foibles of its small-town Texans even while mercilessly mocking them. It's a delicate balance not the least bit easy to achieve, and in Costa Mesa, Myers, Watkins and Schott are evidently still searching for it.
Some of the script's punchlines can't help but hit their targets, as whenever radio co-hosts Arles Struvie (Schott) and Thurston Wheelis (Watkins) cheerfully broadcast news of some national disaster (e.g., 'Nuclear accident imperils seven states'), then quickly curtail their report because the state of Texas, they note happily, is 'not included' among the tragic event's victims.
Likewise, the opinions of Tuna's denizens, often expressed in idiosyncratic or unintentionally funny terminology, hit comical bulls-eyes. The cheerful exterior of Vera Carp (Schott) masks her penchant for cutting backhanded compliments, while Bertha Bumiller (Watkins) notes that members of the 'Visiting Shut-In Squad' are known as 'Tuna Helpers.'
What makes these laughs so surefire is their basis in nearly universal human failings and frailties. The laughs are spottier when Schott and Watkins try to trigger mirth in a way that feels both spontaneous and effortless - no mean feat, especially since much of it rests upon the mood and outlook of each individual audience.
Not all the characters are as backwoods and rednecky as grumbly voiced Elmer Watkins or the burly, swaggering good ol' boy Sheriff Givens (both played by actor Watkins). As spouses Bertha and Hank Bumiller, Watkins scores more with his Bertha - intriguingly, without creating a forced caricature of a matron's looks or voice.
Schott depicts Bumiller twins Stanley and Charlene as having matching flaxen-blonde hair and sulky dispositions. His Didi Snavely, despite her gruff voice, long drags on a cigarette, and comic repartee, is only intermittently funny. Better is his nearly ultra-finicky Vera Carp. And while Schott's Petey wavers uneasily between dorky and soft-headed, his essays in dense thinking, like Stanley Bumiller or Phinas Blye, are tops.
Watkins exhibits crackerjack comic timing and a true flair for Southern diction, and his characterizations are enjoyably contrasting: His affable Thurston Wheelis, carousing cad Hank Bumiller, fussy Aunt Pearl Burras, grinning chucklehead Rev. Spikes, macho Sheriff Givens and rumbly-voiced, fiddle-playing R.R. Snavely all seem to be played by different people.
Elmer Watkins' statement that 'We believe in making this world a better place - for the right kind of people' encapsulates, for better or worse, the thinking of the average resident of Tuna. That's as good an indicator as any of the ambiguity served up by this 'Tuna.'
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