Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September, 1999
And the theatre critic said unto them, “Behold! I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be unto all theatre goers. For unto you is born this day, in the city of New Lebanon, a savior from theatrical withdrawl. And it shall be called “A Tuna Christmas”. You will find the play wrapped in tinsel and many costume changes and lying in the Theater Barn, because there was no room for them at the inn.”
I must say that I viewed this outing with some misgivings. “Greater Tuna” was a hoot, but did we really need a sequel? September is a little early for me to get into the holiday spirit; this is not Texas; and I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t be seeing the original Tuna creators. Still, I was not a complete Grinch. I realized that, if the Theater Barn got the right actors, this could be a fun and funny show. And right now they have the advantage of being the only theatrical offering in the area.
Well, they have nailed this one. It is fun, it is side-splittingly funny, it is poignant, the actors are perfect, and the production values are perfect for the tenor of the show. I give this little gem two thumbs up (I’d give it more if I had more thumbs!) Pack grandma and the kids in the car and treat yourself to a trip to the Theater Barn. Its closer than you think – only 25 minutes door-to-door from my home in scenic downtown Williamstown.
Before I sing the praises of the actors, director and designers involved in this specific production, credit must be given to Tuna creators Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, and Ed Howard. In 1982 these guys parlayed a party skit into the critically acclaimed “Greater Tuna” which has toured nationally and internationally since then, and has spawned numerous highly successful regional productions in places far from Tuna, Texas. They wrote “A Tuna Christmas” in 1989, and are currently touring their 1998 production “Red, White, and Tuna”. They have created characters that they love and care about, and, as a result, the audience does too.
Tuna is the third smallest town in Texas, located somewhere between San Angelo and Hell. It is populated with eccentric but lovable folks – male and female, old and young, rich and poor, animal, human and possibly extra terrestrial. The gimmick here is that two male performers play all the roles. This involves lightening fast costume changes and impeccable timing. As I said, this raised the burning questions: Would the Theater Barn come up with two perfect actors? And, would their designers and stage crew be able to pull off all the technical tricks needed to make those actors efforts work?
Stephen J. Bolte and Jamey McGaugh have performed at the Theater Barn before in larger cast shows, and it was a delight to see what these guys could do when given an evening to really stretch their wings. They were both a hoot in every Tuna citizen they attempted, but some characterizations were real stand-outs. Bolte was at his best as the elderly but feisty Aunt Pearl Burras, and as the UFO obsessed R.R. Snavley. McGaugh really shone in his drag roles, creating believable and sympathetic women as diverse as society maven and smut snatcher Vera Carp, diner waitress Helen Bedd, and elderly but ornery Dixie Deberry. The scene which closes the first act with Bolte as Aunt Pearl and McGaugh as Dixie, confessing their crimes while zapping blue jays with a sling shot was a gem.
Michael Marotta has directed things simply but smoothly, allowing Williams and Sears’ writing and Bolte and McGaugh’s acting to take center stage. I particularly liked his staging of R.R.’s alien abduction, albeit a willing one, on Christmas Eve. Jay Ennis has deigned a simple set that pushes the action further forward than usual on the Theater Barn stage, allowing more room for quick changes behind the scenes. I especially enjoyed Vera Carp’s enormous pink Christmas tree and chaise.
Denise Dyvgert and Guy Lee Bailey have done a masterful job of creating costumes simple enough to get in and out of quickly while clearly differentiating the characters. Vera Carp’s Marge Simpson-esque beehive was my favorite, but I also enjoyed Bertha Bumiller’s less flamboyant style and the theatrically overdone wardrobe of Joe Bob Lipsey, director of the ill-fated Tuna Little Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” (the Smut Snatchers had removed the “round young virgins”…)
This production will have you thoroughly engaged with the lives and longings of these wacky but kindly folks. I was amazed upon leaving the theatre to discover I had been there well over two hours. Time flies when you’re having fun!
“A Tuna Christmas” runs weekends through September 26 at the The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Cal the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999