Greater Tuna in the Texas two-step

Greater Tuna parodies the Lone Star State
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 13, 2010


The people you might meet in Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, include Bertha Bumiller, member of Smut Snatchers of the New Order; Didi Snavely, owner of Didi's Used Weapons ("If we can't kill it, it's immortal"); and Elmer Watkins, head of the local Klan 249 and dedicated to keeping the town safe "for the right kind of people." They and 17 other similarly satirical small-town Texans are the subjects of Greater Tuna, the 1981 comedy by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard that puts the whole one-horse community in the hands of just two actors. Those two actors, in this month's production at the Old Port Playhouse, are the talented and remarkably energetic Michael Donovan and Mark Barrasso, who take on Tuna with gusto under the direction of Vince Knue.

Our first introductions to Tuna come over the airwaves on the Wheelis Struvis Report, as hosts Wheelis (Barrasso) and Struvis (Donovan) announce the winning student-essay contest entry ("Human Rights: Why Bother?") and weatherman Harold Dean (Donovan) forecasts the weather (rain, dust, and locusts). Soon, we enter the home and myriad heartaches of strong, stoic Bertha Bumiller (Barrasso, matronly in navy blue and polka dots), who has a two-timing husband (Barrasso, boorish and bellowing) and an Aunt Pearl addicted to killing dogs (Barrasso, with a flowered hat and delicious dark conviction). Her timid youngest child, Jody (Donovan, quaking and wide-eyed), is constantly followed home by "eight to 10 dogs" from Petey Fisk at the Humane Society (Donovan, lisping and earnest). Her daughter Charlene (Donovan, shrill and hysterical) is inconsolable over not making the cheerleading squad, ever. And her deadbeat oldest son, Stanley (Donovan, sullen and shifty-eyed), just got out of reform school.

And that's just for starters, in a script that pulls no punches when it comes to bigotry, anti-intellectualism, provincialism, and religious fanaticism. Donovan and Barrasso change like lightning between the inhabitants of Tuna — some wacky, some scary, some even sympathetic — and their comedy is beautifully timed and delivered. When Charlene tearfully asks her mom what there is for her to live for other than cheering, Barrasso's Bertha pauses just exactly long enough.

The actors' work is impressive not just for the huge number of characters they quick-change between, but for the ranges of emotion that many of them exhibit, and for the wicked intricacies of their interactions. Barrasso's Bertha, for example, moves back and forth between comic and poignant moments as she laughably explains for a reporter the "smut" she wants to snatch (which includes Roots and Romeo and Juliet), or laments her husband's cruelty, or is, in spite of herself, won over by a dog from Jody's flock. Particularly fun is a scene in which she chews out dog-monger Petey over the phone, as the gaping little man on the other end can't get a lisp in edgewise.

The simple set, designed by Mikey Eastman and Old Port Playhouse artistic director Michael Tobin, makes sharp use of the Playhouse's compact stage, using just a table, chairs, and five bright panels painted with elements of the Texas flag and the logo for the Wheelis Struvis Report. The focus is rightly on the acting, which is as tight and savvy is I could ask for.

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