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Greater Tuna -09/20/1998

By Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Cast: Terry Bosley, David Cox, J.R. Craig, Vince Dill, Curt Flowers, Joe Hart, Mo Hart, Tom Kacich, Cynthia King, Annemarie MacLeod, Lana Ross, Carl Sebens, Larry Stephens Jr., Stacy Walker. Director: Stan Yanchus. Set Designer: Julie Russell. Lighting Designer: Stacy Walker.

The Monticello Theatre Association

Through Sept. 20. Camp Creek Playhouse, Rt. 1, Monticello. Box office: 762-2829.


Around here, "Greater Tuna" is just a play.

But in Texas, where co-writers Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard have premiered three plays in the "Tuna" cycle, it's a cottage industry.

Sears, who also portrayed diabolical Aunt Pearl in the original "Tunas," has done TV spots and cookbooks, led parades and tours, and for all I know, launched an Aunt Pearl fashion line of chenille bathrobes and sturdy grandma shoes.

The Monticello Theatre Association "Greater Tuna," directed by Stan Yanchus at the Camp Creek playhouse, is my fourth "Tuna," including a stop on the Final Farewell Good-bye Tour, performed by stars Williams and Sears themselves.

Part of the appeal of a standard production of "Tuna" is the fact that two quick-changing actors take on a whole town full of eccentrics.

While Actor #1 slides smoothly from a hard-bitten used gun saleswoman to a sweet child with a puppy addiction, Actor #2 will offer a polyester-pantsuited, bouffant-wigged housewife, a drunk UFO spotter, and a blowhard preacher, all in the blink of an eye.

When the actors are as good as Williams and Sears, it's an amazing show -- funny, edgy, maybe even a little scary. As writers, they've deeply lampooned this supposedly quintessential small town in Texas, and as actors, they made the characters real and flawed, outrageous and strange.

In Monticello, director Yanchus has envisioned "Tuna" more as a
community theater project, spreading the characters among a cast of
fourteen and emphasizing the lighter aspects of the script.
That may give you pause when you see a homicidal juvenile, a dog-hating old lady, prejudice of every stripe, and even a Klansman among the characters, but the beauty of "Tuna" is that its cynical heart shows through, even amidst all the jokes. It has a lot to say -- some of it unflattering -- about what lies under the surface of small town life.

(Think of it as Mayberry-meets-Twin-Peaks and you'll get the idea.)

With two actors or fourteen, that message plays loud and clear, as loud as Arles and Thurston, the two dim radio hosts who frame the show.

And the community aspect of this production makes it even more enjoyable if you know someone in the cast, so you can hoot and holler over the silly outfits and outrageous situations.

Among the cast, I enoyed the performances of Carl Sebens, very natural as hapless radio host Thurston; Annemarie MacLeod, cute as a button as sweetest little Jody, who never met a dog he didn't bring home; Terry Bosley as the bombastic, cliche-ridden Reverend Spikes; and David Cox as winless Coach Chassic.

The character of animal lover Petey Fisk, desperate to save the carp, the cubs, the dogs and the ducks, was also a winner.

Unfortunately, the main female characters did not come off as well.

Although all the actresses were animated and energetic, they did not distinguish their characters terribly well from each other, so that neurotic, paranoid Didi, mixed-up mom Bertha, sweetly murderous Aunt Pearl and prim, proper, smut-snatching Vera Carp all seemed somewhat the same. Each delivered laughs, but there's much more to be mined from these characters.

Technically, this "Tuna" benefitted from Julie Russell's expansive set design, with nice playing space from end to end. The costumes (uncredited) were a bit off-target, however; when you're talking Texas and no one wears a cowboy hat or boots, you know something isn't right!

Likewise, there's no reason for Didi to wear rollers and a bathrobe for her radio appearance, Aunt Pearl needs her pearls, R.R. Snavely seems wrong as a Crazy Guggenheim lookalike, and I really missed Vera Carp's white gloves and Bertha Bumiller's 70's pantsuit.

And if you get the idea from that little round-up that I am way too protective of Tuna's denizens for my own good, you may be right.

Still, this was an enjoyable "Tuna" with a great deal of enthusiasm and good spirits across the cast and crew. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, and that communicated itself to the audience, who laughed right along.

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