Fort Worth — When Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard wrote Greater Tuna in Austin in the 1980s, hypocrisy was ripe for satire. The characters that have now become iconic in Texas and the South — played by a quick-changing Williams and Sears for decades — were funny and lovable. The narrative poked at the Moral Majority, evident in creations like Vera Carp, whose Smut Snatchers of the New Order were itching to ban any book or word they deemed offensive.
The characters of the fictional Panhandle town of Tuna — Texas’ third-smallest town — spawned three sequels: A Tuna Christmas, which is as hilarious as the original, and the considerably less funny Red, White, and Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas. The latter is being revived at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana, with Jonathan Beck Reed and David Coffee taking the roles played by Williams and Sears, respectively, and is directed by B.J. Cleveland.
Reed and Coffee have each played these roles multiple times, including together; and their skill with the costume, voice and mannerism changes is top-notch. The character transitions in Tuna, which were written when the original actors were getting to a less-spry age, are given a little more time for changes. There are more offstage lines, for example. (Costumes are by Tammy Spencer; hair, wigs, and makeup are by Catherine Petty-Rogers.)
The Vegas edition of the Tuna series — in which Bertha and Arles head to Sin City to get hitched and are joined by the other Tuna folks — introduces a few new characters. Anna Conda (Reed), a snooty showbiz type, is a hoot. The two Elvis impersonators (played by both actors) are funny enough given the setting. But Wo-Hu, an acupuncturist played by Reed, wearing silk Chinese shirt and pants and two high pigtails on a short black wig, complete with Long Duk Dong accent, is super cringey. Yes, this is over-the-top comedy, but you’d never see such a caricature of a black or brown person. Characters have often referenced other Tuna residents or happenings in ways that show racism exists here, and Vera Carp's microaggressions to her never-seen Latina maid have been numerous; but the character of Wo-Hu takes it too far.
Also, satire is very different in today’s political climate. Hypocrisy is the new normal, “alternative facts” are argued as truth, and the number of hand-to-forehead moments has exponentially increased. Think it isn’t possible for something stupider than what was just said? Wait a few hours. We’re in a constant onslaught of WTF.
The blades once wielded in the Tuna-verse have been severely blunted. And while a number of the characters are still charming and loveable — notably Coffee’s Bertha Bumiller and Aunt Pearl, and Reed’s Arles Struvie — the most cartoonish Tuna-ites, like Reed’s gunstore-owner Didi Snavely and Smut Snatcher Carp (whose current obsession is outlawing the words “poot,” “pecker” and “boob”), are now frightening. Vera and Didi are no longer cautionary tales; they’re heroes to a whole range of gaslighting policy-makers.
Williams, Sears and Howard’s political commentary was never meant to be on the level of, say, Cabaret, but at a time when politics and reality (they're inseparable, really) have become so farcical, Tuna Does Vegas is left gasping for air.