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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Greater Tuna Showcases Two Very Funny Actors

Also see Bob's review of The Smell of the Kill

It has been more than a quarter century since Greater Tuna came up from Austin, Texas and, despite a scorching review from the New York Times, became a big, fat 500-performance hit at Bleeker Street's Circle in the Square. Greater Tuna was co-authored by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Williams and Sears originated the roles in Texas and New York, and, as far as I can determine, have toured in Tuna productions ever since. Howard directed its initial productions. Sears was even nominated for a featured actor Tony Award for his performance in a 1994 Broadway holiday season engagement of a sequel, A Tuna Christmas.

Greater Tuna provides an effective showcase for extravagant performances by the two comic actors who comprise the entire cast. Set on a late summer day in Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, local events are framed by radio station OKKK talkers Thurston Wheelis (John Ligon) and Arles Struvie (Michael Irvin Pollard). Employing a wide and wild array of wigs, costumes and padding—along with their skill for exaggerated, farcical characterization—Ligon and Pollard portray more than twenty Tunans of all ages and both sexes, with a dog thrown in for good measure. The closest thing to a story thread is provided by the Bumiller family. Son Stanley has murdered the local judge and dressed his corpse in a woman's bathing suit, and Aunt Bertha shoots dogs. The local folk are mostly conservative grotesques, ignorant, bigoted KKKers, censorious, stupid and/or homicidal. The heavier (it could be padding), older John Ligon gets his biggest laughs playing elaborately costumed large older women, such as Aunt Bertha. At times, he appears to be channelling the late Jonathan Winters. The slimmer, younger Michael Irvin Pollard is wittily weird as the screwy Bumiller children, such as Stanley.

Greater Tuna has not aged well. Arles announces auditions for the Baptist Church production of My Fair Lady, " ... and Joe Bob wants to integrate the cast this year. So If you know of any Negro or Mexican-American actresses or actors or actresses, have 'em come on out and try out for the chorus." I cannot imagine this happening in 21st century America. It might help if Greater Tuna would now be specifically set in 1981 (when it was first performed) or even further back. The fine, appropriately simple set with its various radio studio signs is the work of Carlton James. Director Carlton Jones has captured the pace and funny performance bits which maximize the presentation.

Followed by three sequels (A Tuna Christmas, Red, White and Tuna, and Tuna Does Vegas), the audience friendly, lighthearted Greater Tuna has remained a popular staple at regional and community theatres. When well performed, and it is being very well performed in this What Exit? / Bickford Theatres co-production, Greater Tuna still provides more than enough comedic amusement to please its audience.

Greater Tuna continues performances (Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday 3 PM) through April 19, 2009 at the What Exit? Theatre at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ 07040. Box Office: 973-763-4029; online: www.whatexittheatre.com.

Greater Tuna performs May 14 - June 7, 2009 (Thurs., Fri., Sat. 8 PM; Sun. 2 PM) at the Bickford Theatre (in the Morris Museum), 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960; Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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