A Tuna Christmas – Theatre Review; Mesa Encore Theatre’s Black Box on Brown

Tuna poster

Welcome to Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas: population, 420.   And for those unfamiliar, Tuna is also the gateway to that great Texan metropolis, Sand City.

Each year in Tuna at Christmas the town engages in the Christmas Yard display, won fourteen times in a row by Tuna resident Vera Carp, who just happens to be the town snob and acting leader of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order; at least, that is, until the Reverend Spikes returns once he gets out of prison.

But there’s trouble in Tuna.   Some mysterious figure known simply as the Christmas Phantom has vandalized several yard displays and it looks like the menace is all set to ruin this year’s contest.   Not only that, but Joe Bob Lipsey, director of the Tuna Little Theater –pronounced theee-eighter – is having trouble getting his production of A Christmas Carol off the ground.   You know the play;  it’s the one written by some guy called Charlie Dickens.

Tuna 1

And so it goes, everyday life during the Christmas season as played out by local talents David Barker and Ben Tyler in the second of a series of comedies set in the really small town of Tuna; A Tuna Christmas, where according to resident Elmer Watkins, if you turn up on Family Night wearing something white you could win that one thing that every home in Tuna should have;  a butane powered flame thrower, the kind that left Elmer with no eyebrows.

A Tuna Christmas is unique in that it has twenty-two characters, all played by the same two performers.   It originated in 1989 when writer/performers Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard followed their ’81 success, Greater Tuna, with a seasonal sequel.   To date, Williams and Sears continue to perform the play around the country, having performed the comedy at the White House after receiving numerous awards and honors, including a ’95 Tony nomination for Best performance by a Leading Actor (Williams) in a play.

As performed at Mesa Encore Theatre’s Black Box on Brown, watching the play again these years later you’re reminded of the script’s surprising level of poignancy buried among the small town satire as Barker and Tyler introduce us to key residents and their homelives.   The performers jump from character to character, sometimes in an instant, donning different wigs, costumes and accents, as they act out the inner workings of normal family life in Tuna.

David Barker and Ben Tyler are undeniably talented men having worked in all aspects of theatre, both here and across the country.   Mesa Encore has given the two actors not only the chance to perform – a daunting enough task considering what they have to do for more than two hours – but also direct, and its here where the production suffers.

Tuna 2

The play starts strong with both performers introducing us to the town and its folk via stories and comical news items on local radio station OKKK, but once Barker and Tyler toss their radio personas aside and start taking on the myriad of Tuna characters the show already feels as though it’s falling apart.   In order to work the two leads need to display a remarkable versatility for disappearing into different people as they change their voices, their way of walking and their overall body stance, all while expertly miming the handling of unseen, everyday objects like the wall-phone, door handles, and records on turn-tables.

Like The Mystery of Irma Vep, the two performers in A Tuna Christmas need to successfully suspend our disbelief above the artificiality of a sparse set to the point where we can actually believe we’re watching different people, but it doesn’t always work.   Had a third-party came on board and helped direct Barker and Tyler by tightening up the style of characterizations and sharpening the delivery, the comedy might have taken off, but as it stands, both actors appear as though they’re simply putting on funny wigs, affecting funny voices and unintentionally performing in a series of sketches for Hee-Haw.

The end result may continue to be an entertaining few hours of quotable southern one-liners – “She screams louder than white trash at a tent revival” or “He’s as useless as ice-trays in hell,” – but without the extra guidance of a much needed third party to keep the two leads in check, that biting satire and the more poignant moments of family life are lost.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Mesa Encore Theatre website.

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