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Tuna Christmas -06/11/1999

Creative team: Director John Ficca; Scenic Designer Suomy Nona; Costume, Hair and Makeup Designer Vicki Tinervin; Lighting and Sound Designer Shawn Malott

Play: A Tuna Christmas, by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard
Venue: IWU McPherson Theater
Dates: 8 p.m., June 17-19 and 24-26
Cost: General, $10; students and seniors, $9


When it comes to “Greater Tuna,” the first installment in the triple-play on small-town Texas, I can honestly say, “Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.”

By that I mean I saw co-writers and original cast Joe Sears and Jaston Williams perform “Greater Tuna” themselves (and yes, I really did buy the T-shirt).

That’s both good and bad -- it gave me an appreciation of just how clever the material is, but it also set the standard for performance pretty high. Once you’ve seen Sears and Williams sashay their way through Tuna, you know exactly who its bizarre citizens are and how they should look and behave. As one reviewer said at the time, “Whoever does their accessorizing is a genius.”

“A Tuna Christmas,” part two in the trilogy, carries along most of the same characters, with a few new wackos just to keep Tuna fresh.

We still see old favorites like Didi Snavely, who runs Didi’s Used Weapons (with the motto: “If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal”); Bertha Bumiller, who tries hard to be sweet and motherly even as she is aggravated by a philandering, no-good husband, a delinquent son and a miserable daughter; and good-hearted Petey Fisk, who runs the local animal shelter and yearns for a world where iguanas and coyotes are treated like members of the family.

New this time -- a pair of man-hungry waitresses from the Tastee Kreme named Inita and Helen, as well as Joe Bob Lipsey, fey director of the local community theater.

The plot threads -- subtle as they are -- concern Joe Bob’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” the local competition for best yard decorations, and a mysterious Phantom prankster.

Keeping in the spirit of the original, the Illinois Wesleyan production uses a cast of two to take on all of Tuna. Under the direction of John Ficca, actors Paul Kneer and Thomas Taylor present 22 different “Tuna Christmas” crazies, racing off stage to change into new outfits and racing right back on again.

The constant costume changes are a big part of the fun, building on a darkly funny script and some wonderfully written -- if scary -- characters.

Taylor and Kneer, who also performed “Greater Tuna” for IWU, are both energetic and committed to the material. Taylor in particular is good with the physical business, as well as creating sound effects right there on stage (another conceit of the original staging).

Unfortunately, director Ficca has chosen to cast them backwards, and that makes a serious dent in the humor. Tuna’s casts of two almost always fall into a skinny one and a chubby one, with the slim half of the cast doing prim, prissy Vera Carp (head of the local Smut-Snatchers) and chain-smoking, edgy Didi, and the plumper man taking “well-fed” Bertha Bumiller, “big old lady” Aunt Pearl, and “cornfed,” “chunky” Helen.

Here, tall, lanky Taylor plays all the pudgy parts, while Kneer, who is only slightly more filled-out, takes the characters who should be whip-thin, like Vera and Didi.

The costumes and wigs are similarly not matched up well -- Bertha, who cries out for polyester pantsuits and big hair (the script refers to tube light bouncing off her bouffant), gets a pretty green Christmas suit and a tight, curly perm, while steely Vera is outfitted in a blowsy mumu and sloppy hair. Reverse them and you’ve got something. This way, they just don’t work.

Still, the script is sharp enough that it is funny. It’s just not as funny as it could be, and it’s not grade A “Tuna.”

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