12/15/2019 A TUNA CHRISTMAS Georgia Ensemble Theatre
THERE'S A RING OF GAUDY GLITTER IN TEXAS
(Bias Alert -- I am friends with director Topher Payne, have worked with him in the past and will (hopefully) do so again in the future. Which is to say, I've come to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.)
(For the record, I have seen more productions of this show than any sane person should and have designed lights for three separate stagings. Which is to say, seeing this is a razor’s-edge navigation across the twin biases of over-familiarity and high-bar expectations. Which also means, I have a Tuna Christmas template in my archived reviews that I plan on pillaging for copy-and-paste opportunities here. Self-plagiarism isn’t a real vice. Is It?)
Howdy, y’all! I sure do hope all y’all’re havin’ a sparkly delightful December (I do! I do!).
Somethin’ that made my weekend shine a little bit more was another trip to Tuna, TX, just for the Halibut! I’ll be durned if Georgia Ensemble Theatre didn’t call up its Oglethorpe compadres and plunk down two fine and dandy actors in the Conant Performing Arts Center to play all the folks of Tuna TX. I’ll be durned if they didn’t draft Atlanta treasure Topher Payne to wrangle the whole enchilada. And I’ll be durned if the whole blamed thing don’t just wiggle along like a sidewinder dumped out of a tub of motor oil.
Now, if you haven’t heard by this time, A Tuna Christmas is the second in the popular Tuna, Texas series by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, and Ed Howard. These plays are character portraits (if y’all will forgive a high-falutin’ phrase) of the residents of Tuna TX, in which pr’t’ near everyone (man, woman, child, and critter) are played by two actors (supported by what has to be a squadron of backstage dressers). These folks are silly and funny, but I’ll be durned if they don’t occasionally reach into my belly and tie a knot of somethin’ serious and pleasant. Granted, I do have a certain fondness for Tuna Christmas, since it was the first play I was paid to light (back when I was still in Yankee up in Pennsylvania and the script was still available only in manuscript).
To recap some of the various stories happening on stage – well, let’s just say that the “Christmas Phantom” is on the loose sabotaging as many yard displays as possible, the Bumiller family is having a Blue Season, Vera Carp is going for her 15th Yard Display win, Didi Snavely’s husband RR is still chasing that flying saucer, and the lights are about to be turned off on the Community Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol. Which may be a good thing. In any case, radio personalities Arles and Thurston have a piece to say about pr’t’ near everything and everybody (They do, they do!). Fans of the Tuna characters can expect this play to be as comfortable and aggravating as a visit to those distant relatives you’re not exactly sure you still like.
Now, on to the beef of the matter, G.E.T. and Mr. Payne have chosen a back-country road for casting, letting a FEMALE actor and an AFRICAN-AMERICAN actor sink their towering talents into this menagerie of characters. Jill Hames and Enoch King are so good and work so well together, the non-traditional nature of the choice quicklier-than-greased-lightning turns into “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” That Mr. King can say a line describing his rosy pink butt without arousing cries of outrage or horror is a true testament to how readily I was able to accept his performances. Ms. Hames and Mr. King give two dozen of the best performances of the year. They work together like grits and beans, and never even raise a sweat in their many costume switcheroos. They make it look easy.
Okay, Mr. King’s Inita Goodwin is given a very what-were-they-thinking piece of business involving a silly walk in the diner sequence which comes across as a milk-the-audience-for-a-cheap-laugh schtick and NOT a true character choice, seeming far too much like a man who doesn’t know how to walk in high heels. But that was ALL that struck me as false among the many many choices made by this marvelous pair.
To give praise to all the unseen backstage folk, let kudos be strewn, as usual, to the anonymous backstage dressers who make the many rapid-fire quick-changes work with whip-crack accuracy. Christopher Dills has designed a truly expensive (looking) set which gives us a skyline and a malleable playing area that moves from kitchen to back yard to radio station with ease, though the sheer size of the Conan stage occasionally dwarfs the actors (but not a distracting way). D. Connor McVey’s lights (including a Griswold count of colored twinky-lights), Nancye Hilley’s costumes, George Deavours’ wigs, and Preston Goodson’s sound are all well-synchronized and well-planned to enhance the stories and characters. Props by M.C. Park are limited to a few microphones and trees and set dressings, since a choice was made to make all hand props mimed, a choice which quickly segues from (vaguely) distracting to not-even-noticeable.
And, as expected, Mr. Payne has drawn an incredible array of performances from his cast and made a few directorial choices that (pleasantly) surprised even this jaded too-many-Tuna-visits viewer.
Some fancy Yankee writers say the Tuna plays make the characters look foolish and silly, and true Texans should oughta hate ‘em. I’m inclined to see the sparks of folks I really know in all of ‘em, and laugh at all the eccentricities that coulda been ugly if they weren’t so funny.
So, all I can say to all y’all is you would do yourselves a favor by moseyin’ on over to Oglethorpe (a “city” by Tuna standards, I reckon), and visit with some folks you may (or may not) have visited before.
You’ll have a fine time, y’hear? You will, you will!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #GETTunaChristmas)