Greater Tuna by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard is a good ol’ down-home laugh-out-loud fest. Director Lucinda Merry-Browne and Founding Artistic Director of Compass Rose Theater, always manages to cast actors that both fit and are challenged by their roles.
Actors Peter Boyer and Michael Harris transport the audience to Tuna, Texas where a variety of characters are brought to life. They each play 10 different characters that are both male and female, some with authority, while most are more dim-witted than bright. While it seems that Boyer and Harris play stereotypical Texans/southern characters, it is those types of characters that really do exist and bring a small, sleepy town to life.
The lead characters of Greater Tuna and residents of Tuna, Texas are Arles Struvie (Boyer) and Thurston Wheelis (Harris) are the radio personalities for radio station OKKK. They provide colorful commentary and humorous antics when their banter rolls back and forth with the same response, “mm…hmm….they did, they did, they did” or “Yep, we did, we did, we loss the news. Yep, we did.” Add in a thick southern drawl and that sets the wacky tone for this show.
The storyline focuses on Bertha Bumiller (Harris), her three screwy children – Jody, Charlene, and Stanley – all played by Boyer, and a few days in their lives. Harris is both sensible and obnoxious in his role as Bertha. One minute she is loving and threatening the next, which makes her a little bit out of her mind.
Her son Stanley is the epitome of the southern redneck whereas Jody, her youngest son is mentally challenged and charming with his sensitivity. Charlene on the other hand, Bertha’s daughter needs to get a clue. Obviously a talented writer, she needs to focus her talents elsewhere and stop obsessing over being a cheerleader.
In contrast to Harris’ Bertha, is Boyer’s role as the Human Society advocate, Petey Fisk. Boyer makes this misfit adorable when he talks about the dogs that need help and maybe it’s Petey himself that needs a bit of that too.
Many of these characters are a reflection of sit-com characters of days gone by, like Norm (George Wendt) from Cheers, Mama (Vickie Lawrence) from the Carol Burnett Show, the Church Lady and Garth from Wayne’s World (Dana Carvey) as seen on Saturday Night Live, and Chris Farley, also of SNL fame. This is the comedy of comedies of our time and for Harris and Boyer to bring it to that level is bliss.
There are many more character that boast dim idiocy but the absolute scene stealer in this production is Reverend Spikes (Harris) preaching and Vera Carp (Boyer) unable to stay awake. Harris and Boyer stretch their physical agility as the Reverend speaks with fervor accompanied with larger-than-life gestures. Vera is seated on the altar as well and falls asleep several times during the sermon. Boyer manages to put Vera into some very less-than-lady like positions, requiring some serious strength to maintain her being sprawled over a chair. Bottom line, the church scene is beyond laughing-out-loud outrageous as is most of the show.
The costumes by designer Renee Vergauwen are reminiscent of Some Like It Hot, with Harris and Boyer donning ladies suits with hats, hoses, and heels. Some of the male characters wear jeans and shirts accompanied by jackets. The female characters outfits come in bright blues, purples, and gray with orange accents. The men wear varying shades of brown with the exception of Stanley’s torn Rock of Ages black t-shirt. The costume changes from character to character to yet another character then back to a previous character is unprecedented – a total of 31 changes! Boyer and Harris do this with finesse and when there are longer needed costume changes, the time is filled with snappy songs – lots of Elvis – or off stage dialogue. Sound design is credited to Mary Ruth Cowgill.
Though the set by designer Joseph Powell, Jr. is simplistic in design, a flat wall across the back and two angled walls stage left and right, the set supports a variety of locales, such as the radio station, Bertha’s house, the county jail and the Baptist church. The sponge painted walls by scenic painter Jo Ann Gidos, works well in cooperation with the lighting changes. Three brown chairs, a table, and a radio propped on a smaller table stand are rearranged from scene to scene to further establish each location.
The lighting design by Dylan Adams lends to defining all the locales especially the stain glass gobo (lighting stencil) for the Baptist Church and the UFO projection throughout the theater.
Compass Rose Theater ends their 2014-2015 season on not only a high note but a hilarious one with the production of Greater Tuna. It’s comprised of stereotypical characters that are destined to make one’s day, simply because of their ridiculous stupidity. What makes it so fun too, is the relatability with these characters. They represent your radio personalities, your aunt or uncle, your church patrons, your neighbor, or even your boss. Nonetheless, it just felt so good to just laugh out loud.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Sophia Howes also reviews Greater Tuna.