The characters of Tuna, Texas, have been with us for three decades, and if you think that what began as a satire of the moral majority is dated, then scan your news feed for the latest examples of religious hypocrisy and rightwing extremism. In recent weeks, it has escalated even more, what with Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" debacle and, this week, news that a Lubbock judge is preparing for a United Nations invasion should Obama be re-elected.
As the co-creator of the Tuna series, Jaston Williams, said backstage on opening night of Casa Mañana's current production of Greater Tuna: "What would the U.N. want with Lubbock?"
To quote a Tuna character, the rabble-rousing Stanley Bumiller: "They should put a tax on stupidity."
Greater Tuna is the original in the Tuna series, and was followed by A Tuna Christmas; Red White & Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas. For my money, the Christmas installment is the best play of the four, and it only takes another visit to Greater Tuna to remember why.
In the first play, creators Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Williams introduce us to the characters, including radio announcers Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, who are in a sense narrators; the chain-smoking and gun store-owning Didi Snavely; the good-intentioned book banner Bertha Bumiller; animal-loving Petey Fisk; UFO-spotting R.R. Snavely; Bertha's sad-sack daughter Charlene, who will never be a cheerleader; and the cantankerous Aunt Pearl Burras.
Throughout the series, we'll get to know these and other characters in greater depth. Bertha, for instance, has the biggest character arc, going from a loveless marriage in the first play to a relationship with and eventually, in Vegas, marriage to Arles.
The other three plays have more outrageous jokes and sight gags, and Greater Tuna is easily the darkest, thanks to a bit about a male judge found dead and wearing a Dale Evans swimsuit. (That's especially funny considering that the big joke of the play is that male actors wear dresses and heels to play women.)
Sears and Williams' portrayals in these roles will never be forgotten, especially if you've seen them each more than a few times. (Tuna has long had a cult following). But, we knew the time would come for them to retire, which they have, as Williams says in this interview.
That means it's time for other actors to play the Tuna residents. This has been the case for 30 years around the country, but in Texas, professional productions without Sears and Williams have been rare. Until now.
Casa's production, directed by Joe Sturgeon, reunites Fort Worth favorite David Coffee with Oklahoma actor Jonathan Beck Reed. This duo performed the show in 2008 at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma.
Neither of them will completely satisfy diehard Tuna fans, but if that describes you, then it's time to move on.
Coffee plays the Sears roles, and for the most part, sticks to the Sears model. Coffee's Bertha is pretty close to how you best know her, except without that glasses. As Elmer Watkins, Coffee manages an accent/speech pattern that's different from any of the other Tuna characters; and his Reverend Spikes is a hoot.
Reed has greater success overall, even if he sometimes goes out of his way to differentiate the characters with voices and hand gestures. His Didi Snavely, in that ratty duct-taped raincoat, is funny because the character is, but it's hard not to miss Williams' trademark cigarette-puffing, often mid-word. Voice-wise, Reed's Petey Fisk has a touch of South Park. His Stanley Bumiller is darker and his Charlene Bumiller a little less gloomy than Williams' portrayals.
But it's his take on Tuna's most satirical character, Vera Carp, vice-president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, that will have you temporarily forgetting the original performers. The scene in which Vera falls asleep as SS president Reverend Spikes speechifies might be the funniest scene you'll see all year.
It's too bad that in the first of the Tuna plays, Vera has too few scenes. She becomes more over-the-top in the other plays.
Perhaps we'll get to see Coffee and Reed in the other ones (although A Tuna Christmas would conflict with Coffee's long-running stint as Scrooge at North Shore Music Theatre). Their versions of Tastee Kreme waitresses Helen Bedd and Inita Goodwin, who appear in the other plays, would be delectable.
The saddest part about the retirement of Sears and Williams is that we won't see a fifth Tuna play. Tuna Tea Party, anyone?
◊ Interview with David Coffee
◊ Interview with Jaston Williams