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Tuna with all the fixin's 

by Michael Bowen

I sat next to some Baptists at a play the other night. It was a funny play. Two actors each played 11 different characters, inhabitants of a tumbleweed town known as Tuna, Texas. The actors ran all over the place, sauntered backstage, showed up seconds later as persons entirely distinct in gender, age and demeanor -- all the while keeping up a frenetic patter. The grouchy, hard-boiled dame who owns the gun shop, for example, answered the phone with "Didi's Used Weapons. If we can't kill it, it's immortal." Not long after, the same (male) actor appears as a Baptist woman, the leader of a group calling themselves the Smut Snatchers. She's intent on censoring objectionable Christmas carol lyrics, like that reference in "Silent Night" (which she misunderstands) to "round young virgins": "I'm not comfortable singing about virgins in any case. We'll leave that to the Catholics."

I had a dandy time at A Tuna Christmas (the sequel to Greater Tuna, plays both written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard). Judging from all the snorts, chortles and guffaws I heard, most of the audience liked it, too. It plays at Interplayers through December 15.

But there were some sex jokes. And some cursing.

The Baptists were not amused. That's too bad, because they missed an entertaining show -- one that managed to be both delightful and instructive at the same time. Even the Baptist characters in the play are capable of telling jokes on themselves: "One time," says one, "we raised so much hell in Houston, I claimed to be an Episcopalian."

It seems to me that actors who take on multiple roles, who are continually going in and out of different costumes and characterizations throughout the evening, are to adults what pop-up toys are to children. We're delighted when the guy who had just appeared as the dropout in tattoos and leather now pops up as a fifty-something socialite in heavy makeup and a pink-fur collar. Where will he show up next? Who will he be acting like?

Similarly, children playing peek-a-boo like being reassured that faces hidden behind folded hands aren't gone forever, knowing that their world has some measure of permanence. On an adult level, it's pleasant to realize that so many eccentrics can be carried on the shoulders of a single actor. They're all different, but he's also somewhere there underneath all of them. (A pleasing fiction for the holidays.)

But there's an additional, moral element here, too. The KKK bigot, the reform-school recidivist, the hapless village idiot -- hell, in this town, they're all idiots -- they won't remain that way. They're not beyond redemption. And that's because, in the make-believe world of a play like this, actors just shed their characters with their costumes.

Hallelujah, brother. The Tastee Kreme waitresses who like to sleep around, those straying husbands -- they're just a quick change away from salvation.

A Tuna Christmas, really, is just one Protestant conversion story after another. It's Christmastime, folks, and moral reformation is in the air. Can somebody say "Amen"?

But the Baptists seated near me didn't grasp any of that. (Here I go reviewing audience behavior, not the production itself -- oh, that.) Sometimes playgoers need to uncross their judgmental arms and bring some openness to performances. We can't watch live entertainment the way we watch TV in our living rooms, hunkered down in front of our unresponsive boob tubes. (Oh, sorry -- shouldn't have said "boob." The Smut Snatchers are snarling at me.) Actors feed off of what audiences give them; if we dismiss them with condemnations, they don't have much energy or motive to direct anything back at us.

Such isn't the case, fortunately, with the Tuna sandwich Interplayers is serving up. Those dour playgoers are missing a good meal.

Michael Weaver and Donn MacEllis are two brawny guys with an exceptional ability to play characters who happen to be women. Weaver, an Interplayers veteran, is remarkable as Bertha Bumiller, the husky housefrau of middle age who coordinates her outfits Yuletide color schemes even as she tries to put up with a son who's trying to pay off his debt to society and a daughter who's trying to pay off a debt to her hormones. Among his 10 other roles in this show, Weaver is worthy as Aunt Pearl Burras, the crotchety old lady who combines generosity with some really malicious practical jokes. Having visited Tuna land before in two productions, Weaver has realized the dangers of going over the top with hillbilly characterizations. He tones it down, and, as a result, gets more mileage in the backwoods.

The only other actor in Tuna, Donn MacEllis, an Interplayers rookie, is fine as the gun shop owner Didi Snavely, and as the inept but golden-hearted Petey Fisk, a one-man Humane Society who takes on other people's unwanted animals and (inevitably) gets bitten by them. But MacEllis' finest moment may come as Vera Carp, 14-time winner of the town's Christmas yard display contest, a sort of fading Charo on motorized scooter, all rhinestone glasses and false pleasantries. Vera's more concerned with the size of the carats on her wizened knuckles than about anything having to do with the spirit of the season.

This is only one of the many instances where the joke is as much in the costuming and the props as it is in the acting. MacEllis and Weaver richly deserve credit, but the essence of the wackos they portray is often conveyed by Lisa Caryl's costumes, Swan Laws's props and Frank Jewett's wigs.

The director of these-two-who-play-22 is Guy Barile, another Interplayers newcomer, who has come all the way from Chicago to oversee the wackiness. When one old crone explains, with idiosyncratic logic, that failure to pay light bills must necessarily lead to a Communist invasion, Barile guides his actors in accusatory swirls around one another, intensifying the comic effect.

The final scene of this Texas farce yearns for seriousness, as two lonely souls reach out with clumsiness for some affection. Typically, the playwrights set off the poignance of the final tableau with a sexual sight gag. That's very much in the Tuna spirit, and very much the sort of thing that riles up the conspicuous killjoys among us.

Listen up, party poopers: when I order a sandwich, I tell 'em I want my Tuna salad with all its innuendoes. And hold the aspersions.

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