November 21, 2008
Tuna without the saccharinity
by Greg Boyle
A Tuna Christmas, the holiday offering at American Heartland Theatre, starts the guffaws rolling in the first minute, and doesn’t slow down until the lights go out at the very end. Don’t bother taking the kids because it’s an adult comedy, not because of any raunchiness, but because of the sharply satirical nature of the humor.
Some Christmas shows can be so sappy and saccharine that they make your teeth hurt from all the sweetness onstage. Others make you wish you had overripe vegetables to throw at the melodramatically evil villains. A Tuna Christmas is nothing like that. Tuna earns your attention with laugh after laugh at the follies of human beings, with a decided Texas twist.
The plot is simple. In tiny Tuna, Texas, the yearly contest for best Christmas decorations creates an atmosphere of tension among the citizens of that spunky little outpost. The competition and the local production of A Christmas Carol — threatened to be shut down — dominate conversations in every household and on the local radio station, OKKK. Along the way to the final judging, you get to meet all the locals and get filled in on what’s happening in their lives.
Tuna has all the personalities you’d expect to find in any small burg: The busybody, the wealthy lady who lords her money over everyone, the petty tyrant, the drunk, the libidinous waitress, the gun lover, the animal lover, the hell-raiser, the lonely housewife and so on.
While these could be construed as stock comedic characters, the performers imbue each and every one of the twenty-two people we meet with a large dose of humanity. No moment is played cheaply. Sophisticated comedy is about the foibles of real people and every one of these characters is allowed to be a real person. That’s not to say that you’re watching an evening of high drama. Every scene is chock full of laughs, because of the attitudes of the townsfolk and the things that they take for granted about life that are so foreign to outsiders.
A trio of Texans, Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, wrote A Tuna Christmas. It is second in a trilogy of plays about Tuna, the fictional “3rd smallest town in Texas”. The series uses sentimentality and satire to simultaneously laud and lampoon life in what city folks would call a hick town.
The Tuna Trilogy is based on a gimmick. Only two male performers bring to life the entire town of Tuna, half of which is female. AHT’s cast is comprised of Jim J. Bullock and John-Michael Zuerlein. Both of them perform at superior levels throughout the show. Their many roles are clearly differentiated by voice, body language and manner of walking in ways that bring every character to full, three-dimensional life.
Fifty percent of inhabitants of Tuna are male, but the lion’s share of stage time is devoted to females. However, these aren’t Monty Pythonesque slapstick impressions. No gesture is overdone or exaggerated. You don’t hear any squeaky, scratchy falsetto-female voices. You believe you’re watching women but not in the kinky way of a drag show. The humor is in the truth of the writing, which the actors portray genuinely.
Zuerlein is so good in this show as Didi Snavely, the used weapons dealer (“If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal.”) that you can feel the audience literally holding its breath waiting for him to finish his lines.
However, the second scene in the show set the bar for the rest of the play. It introduced a dirt-poor trailer trash family getting ready for Christmas, in spite of daddy being off carousing, son recently home from reform school, twin sister enamored with the director of the Christmas play and youngest son having brought home a pregnant feral cat. Somehow, all of that unfolded with only two actors and without any sense of being frantic.
It was deeply touching to witness Bullock playing each moment as Bertha, the mother, with absolute feminine resignation and honesty. It was this scene that made you realize that A Tuna Christmas would deliver more than anticipated.
Mention must be made of the backstage personnel for all the behind-the-scenes activity that the audience never sees. Costume designer Sarah Oliver created clothes that allowed Bullock and Zuerlein to make lightning-fast changes, far too many times to count. In this case, it would be a travesty not to mention the most unappreciated persons in showbiz, the stage managers. William J. Christie and Sara E Beatty, and whoever else was backstage keeping track of the required changes, and helping the actors out of one costume and into the next, performed as brilliantly as the people onstage. A thousand kudos to her/him/them.
So pack your bags and take a trip to that tiny west Texas town for a laugh-filled, and surprisingly touching, visit home. You’ll be glad you did.
A Tuna Christmas is playing at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center through Dec. 28. For more information or tickets, call 816-842-9999 or go to www.ahtkc.com.
Greg Boyle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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