Greater Tuna, one of the trio of comedies by Ed Howard, Jaston Williams, and Joe Sears, may as well be a national treasure.
Premiering in 1981, it’s a beloved show well regarded enough to have merited three sequels, a Tony nomination, an HBO special, and a command performance for a sitting President (Bush the elder in case you were wondering).
Chock-full of eccentric characters, largely with small minds, the show follows them throughout a day in the fictional town of Tuna, whose population is somewhere south of 300. In 2 hours, you get a dead judge, a PETA-esque humane society worker, a murderous teen, an inept sheriff, a smarmy preacher, a preachy mother, a Chihuahua, and two radio personalities without a clue, among others.
Two men play all the characters—about 20—distinguishing each by dress, wigs and, fuddy-duddy hats. In the Compass Rose Theater’s production those men are Peter Boyer and Michael Harris. Both rise to the challenge in proving their mettle in versatility.
And, they start with a bang as Arles Struvie (Boyer) and Thurston Wheelis (Harris), the not-so-shocking disc jockeys at OKKK, Radio Tuna. Their good-natured news update, interspersed with guests who give the weather or provide sponsorships (a used weapon/gun shop where all goods are guaranteed to kill), is a lighthearted, and somewhat, befuddled ramble capped by the aw-shucks realization that they forgot to hit the “on-air” switch.
But, then the hilarity slows, and even the tacky Bumiller family—Bertha, Jody, Stanley, and Charlene—barely get a guffaw. For a show billed as having a laugh a minute or less, several spans of 20 minutes with nary a snicker from the audience followed.
I myself resisted a couple of yawns and let my mind wander, contemplating whether the humor—a loving, but critical, satire-zation of conservative, slow-as-molasses, narrow-minded Texas and rural America—was outdated. Perhaps, tired.
April 10 – May 9
Compass Rose Studio Theater
49 Spa Road
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
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Then, Harris came out in a pair of Ray-ban knock-offs and a wig the color of sun-kisses as the Reverend Spikes to eulogize the dead judge. His Southern Baptist minister’s off-kilter ode to the deceased a series of idioms, clichés, song lyrics, and tired proverbs given in the high-energy, rolling rhythm of a do-or-die sermon.
“He was a judge who made hay while the sun shined but always, I say ALWAYS, let a smile be his umbrella…about this man, we can say he was one-of-a-kind, a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny…and, he did it his way,” he hollers and whispers, pointing toward heaven while Peter Boyer, as Vera Carp, struggles to not nod off.
A glory, glory, hallelujah moment in an otherwise ho-hum production.
It did help pick-up the energy, but by then, it was the middle of Act II, and a tad late to re-invigorate the show’s mojo.
Fine skill, both actors, with clear range; decent staging, well-chosen props and costumes—I even love the song choices (Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso,” anyone?) but the sum of the production floundered.
An off night? Maybe, because Greater Tuna is usually a rip-roaring good time, and the promise of laughter is a great way to cap a season and pack a theatre.
Greater Tuna by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard . Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne . Featuring Peter Boyer and Michael Harris . Set design: Joseph Powell, Sr. . Scenic Painting and Props: Jo Ann Gidos . Costumer design: Renee Vergauwen . Props: Mike Gidos . Lighting design: Dylan Adams . Sound design: Mary Ruth Cowgill . Stage Manager: Mary Ruth Cowgill . Produced by Compass Rose Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.