Out of Tuna

If contemporary Texas politicians were as endearingly funny as the small-town folk who bustle to and fro during Red, White and Tuna, then having a whole bevy of Texans in the White House someday might not seem so unsettling. It's easy enough, for instance, to snicker at the small-minded observations of a couple of old-timers like Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, who consider it their patriotic duty to take to the airwaves of radio station OKKK to inform their fellow citizens about the daily goings-on in Tuna, the third-smallest town in the Lone Star state. And it's hard not to take a liking to Pearl Burras, a droopy-breasted matron whose print dresses and prim appearance belie her double existence as a sexually active retiree. Nor is it difficult for theatergoers to cozy up to her nephew, Stanley Bumiller, an edgy artistic type who fled Tuna for Santa Fe so that his talent for spray painting and framing roadkill might attract a more appreciative -- and more lucrative -- following. Which, Stanley hastens to point out, it has.

Not as easy to appreciate about this latest installment in the popular Tuna trilogy (the other two are Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas) are several interminable scenes that wind up inducing more Texas-sized yawns than belly laughs. And even though the touring production at the Auditorium Theatre boasts the original pair of quick-change artists who wrote the show (and who play all twenty characters), actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams aren't always able to convey each character's wondrous quirks and subtleties to the 2,065-seat hall's far reaches. (A few seasons ago, a local production of Greater Tuna seemed well-suited to the comfortable confines of the now-defunct Vogue Theatre, which sat about 250 spectators.)

Even so, Sears and Williams manage to keep theatergoers interested in each oddball character by combining their incomparable feel for Southern yokelry with an aptitude for lightning-fast costume changes. Throw in a few hysterical one-liners, some enjoyable technical effects and strains of twangy incidental music, and this hopper of personality disorders occasionally yields a bumper crop of laughs.

Following the brief introductory scene at the radio station, Sears gets things moving with his portrait of the monumentally hopeful Bertha Bumiller. She's an older single mother who bravely chooses to accentuate her considerable girth by wearing a bouffant wig, bright-green pantsuit, fire-engine-red smock and silver-dollar-sized earrings adorned with the sort of tricolor bunting usually reserved for baseball playoff games. And in addition to his dead-on impersonation of the aforementioned Pearl, Sears delights as Joe Bob Lipsey, a flamboyant amateur performer who proudly, if ill-advisedly, wears a sequined cape to his high school reunion picnic; Star Birdfeather, an earth-mother type who wears a tie-dyed gown and tosses her golden braids with Mama Cass-like flair; and R.R. Snavely, a gentle giant who's accused of having abandoned his wife some years back -- only to show up out of the blue and provide an excuse for his absence that proves as good as any in the galaxy.

Not to be outdone -- as if director Ed Howard, who co-wrote the show, would let him -- Williams takes on several characters with an even looser grasp of reality than Sears's collection of misfits. The wiry Williams is a hoot as Vera Carp, a virulently religious, sinfully rich woman who's the leader of the local chapter of Smut Snatchers, a group dedicated to eradicating less-than-wholesome entertainment forms; Petey Fisk, an animal-rights activist who wears a hunting license on his flap-eared cap, making him look as though he's a refugee from The Deer Hunter; and Didi Snavely, a chain-smoking gun-shop owner who plods across the stage in a plastic trenchcoat and scarf as though she's been dutifully stalking her missing husband -- the notorious R.R. -- since time began.

But the extended storylines start to wear thin midway through Act One and become tiresome well before the two-hour show concludes. Despite the performers' best efforts, most audience members don't get the kind of up-close-and-personal look at the characters as by rights they should. Which makes one wish for a more streamlined version of Tuna's travails next time around.

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Jim Lillie

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