Need a good laugh? You’re in luck – the Garfield Center’s production of Greater Tuna opens this weekend, with Bradley Chaires and Nic Carter bringing the diverse population of Tuna, Texas to life onstage. The play is directed by Steven Arnold, who recently returned to the area as Executive Director of the theater.”
The “Tuna” plays, by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, use only two actors to create the entire population of Tuna – the third smallest town in Texas. Tuna was launched in 1982 in an off-Broadway production. The success of the original play gave rise to three sequels, A Tuna Christmas, Red White and Tuna, and Tuna Does Vegas. The plays toured the country regularly for more than 25 years, with the writers themselves, Williams and Sears, playing the more than 20 characters.
The plays were a huge hit. The original Greater Tuna, along with A Tuna Christmas, appeared in a command performance in the White House for George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. There was also a 1984 HBO production, but due to copyright complications it was limited to a three-month run and has never been re-broadcast. Pirated VHS tapes of the original touring show reportedly bring high prices from collectors!
The two actors are the heart of the show, displaying a variety of accents, voices, postures and expressions that bring the people of Tuna to life. Long-time fans of local theater will likely recall the Church Hill Theatre production of Greater Tuna some ten years ago, with Wade Garrett and Matt Wood as the leads. For the new production, Chaires and Carter inject the roles with plenty of comic energy – Tuna, Texas is alive again in Chestertown!
The plot is episodic, looking at one day in the lives of several Tuna residents. It starts at radio station OKOK, where announcers Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie deliver everything from farm reports and the weather to spot coverage of community meetings – interspersed with appearances by local “talent.” We meet the five members of the Bumiller family, animal-loving Petey Fisk, hard-nosed Sheriff Givens, and a group of citizens devoted to removing objectionable books from the school library. The biggest local news item is the funeral of Judge Buckner, whose body the characters view – with something less than due respect!
All this is created with a bare minimum of props and scenery: a table and a couple of chairs, an old-fashioned radio, a microphone, and wonderful costumes. The characters create much of the set – the Bumillers’ kitchen, the radio station, the funeral parlor, a violin – through mime and occasional wordless vocalizations. There is, director Arnold said, a long and well-established tradition of mime for the Tuna plays. Thus set changes are never needed. The town’s different locales are created in the mind’s eye through dialogue and actions.
Chaires, who has become one of the most versatile actors in local theater, is a perfect choice for the Tuna plays. He is especially effective as Bertha Bumiller, who creates furniture and fixtures of the family kitchen very effectively through mime. . At one point, when Bertha mimes shooing a pack of dogs out of the kitchen, you can practically see those critters run! As Rev. Spikes, he delivers a platitude-filled eulogy for the late Judge Buckner, and as Sheriff Buckner he does his best to intimidate a juvenile delinquent – while totally missing the suspect’s guilty secret. And Chaires is both convincing and hilarious as fiddler R.R. Snavely. A great job.
Carter, who is also the Garfield’s theater manager, is especially funny as the three Bumiller children, including Charlene, who is devastated at not being chosen as a cheerleader. She compensates by constantly using her cheerleader moves, even while reciting poetry on the radio. Her twin Stanley, fresh out of reform school and full of bad attitude, sulks convincingly. Then Carter switches easily to the much younger brother Jodi, who wears a Superman shirt and cape and whines to stay up “just another half-hour.” Carter is also perfect as Petey Fisk, the earnest voice of the local humane society, who appears regularly to urge residents to adopt clearly un-adoptable animals. Fish have feelings too, he says wistfully. Carter also portrays Didi Snavely, owner of the local used guns and knives shop, who proudly states that if a product you bought can’t kill it, it’s immortal.
A good bit of the fun comes from the fast-moving costume changes, with one character leaving the stage to be replaced by another in the wink of an eye. Kudos to costumer Barbi Bedell for making all the characters look good – or at least, authentically “Tuna.” Wig styling is by Meghan Harrington. You’ll love Charlene’s pigtails!
Backstage, quick-change dressers Shannon Whitaker and Natalie Lane may work twice as hard as the actors getting the characters back onstage in time. They get a special, well-deserved, curtain-call.
The set was designed by Arnold and features an authentic Texas “big-sky” desert with mountains-in-the-distance backdrop painted by Beverley Hall Smith. The sound track is full of lively, twangy country songs that evoke the setting and era. Well done – congratulations to all.
The humor is broad, physical, and often pointedly satirical. The characters are definitely stereotypes but they are treated warmly rather than mean-spiritedly. Tuna is relentlessly stuck in some previous decade – possibly the ‘50s – and its residents often act as if the rest of the world doesn’t really exist, which for them it probably doesn’t!
If comic Americana dealt out by two masterful actors tickles your funny bone, this may be your best entertainment bet for the season. The play has some adult language, so it may not be appropriate for children under 13.
Greater Tuna runs two weekends, from Feb. 14 to Feb. 23. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors or military personnel, and $10 for students. Call 410-810-2060 or visit www.garfieldcenter.org tor reservations or other information.