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HOLIDAY HOOT: TheatreNOW serves up laughs and dinner with ‘A Tuna Christmas’

Thanksgiving is here. Christmas is right around the corner. But TheatreNOW is already in the spirit and has opened their holiday show, “A Tuna Christmas.” The sequel to this season’s earlier production, “Greater Tuna”—written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard—is directed by Nick Smith and stars Susan Auten and Erin Hunter as a variety of residents of the third smallest town in Texas: Tuna. The “Tuna” repertoire is a favorite of actors because two performers bring to life more than 20 different characters in the show, which allows performers to really highlight the breadth of their skill. Historically, the show has been performed by two men, with Williams and Sears touring for many years, and Sears receiving a Tony nomination in 1995.

The plot centers on the holiday season in Tuna and local radio personalities, Arles Struvie (Auten) and Thurston Wheelis (Hunter), find themselves yet again reporting on the annual Christmas Yard Display Contest and antics of the “Christmas Phantom,” who vandalizes said yard displays. It’s sort of a perfect symbiotic relationship, but it leaves everyone in town on pins and needles, wondering about the outcome of the contest, and even more, where the Phantom will strike next. In addition, the community theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” is currently threatened by an unpaid electricity bill. Will the show go on or won’t it? All of Tuna stands by to find out answers to these persistent questions.

Perhaps more than anyone else in town, Bertha Bumiller (Hunter) is feeling stressed and disappointed by the holiday season. Her husband is MIA—not in a war but with a floozy—and her nearly adult children (all played by Auten) are caught in their own webs of personal crises. Jody, the youngest, has brought home a pregnant kitty cat on the verge of labor—much to the hysteria of her allergic older sister, Charlene. Charlene is at that stage of young womanhood where hysteria is her default position. Add to it an unfortunate and requited love for Joe Bob Lipsey (Hunter), the effeminate bachelor director of the soon-to-be defunct production of “A Christmas Carol.” Adding to Charlene’s distress is the return of her twin brother, Stanley, who must participate in the production of “A Christmas Carol” as part of his probation. Mama just wants everyone to be together and be loving—is that too much to ask? A little family time at the holidays? Apparently.

It’s hard not to laugh at the visual image of beautiful Hunter as a homely house wife decked out in a denim skirt and tacky vest ensemble, with a hugely over-stuffed bosom and derriere. But she carries all of it with such poise that her complete oblivion enhances the humor. When confronted with the perfectly coiffed, elegantly dressed, wealthy and snobby Vera Carp (Auten), audiences will love her more. Vera might have live sheep in the yard display, and the ability to send her misbehaving child away to school, but she doesn’t have class. Nor can she prevent the looming specter of the Christmas Phantom from threatening her chances of winning the display for the fifteenth year in a row. She is certain it is in the bag, but will the phantom strike and ruin everything? Unfortunately, for Stanley, everyone thinks he is the phantom.

Across town at Didi’s Used Weapons (“If we can’t kill it … it’s immortal”), Didi (Auten) grapples with a variety of holiday crises of her own. The way she answers the phone, rattling off her tagline with disinterested repetition of years, is pitch-perfect and everything else about Didi falls into place. Let’s just say she has enough pent-up anger and bitchiness to launch a rocket from Cape Canaveral and, unfortunately, has access to an almost unlimited armory. She helps Pearl (Hunter) an aging former WWII riveter, find a slingshot to kill off blue jays in her yard, which sets up the funniest scene in a night of laughs: Pearl and Dixie Dewberry (Auten), town comptroller and woman with her hand on the electrical switch for community theatre, killing blue jays in Pearl’s yard. The two old friends lure the jays with renditions of The Andrews Sister songs that would stun the ears off Mickey Mouse. My favorite moment of the show comes with Dixie’s monologue about why she will enforce the overdue electrical bill for the community theatre—because to give them a pass would be the first step on a slippery slope to parallel parking on Sundays and a communist takeover of Tuna, which she is not going to let happen on her watch. It sounds absurd, but on the other hand, I have to respect that kind of determination—and I believe Auten completely.

TheatreNOW is dinner theatre and Chef Denise Gordon outdoes herself with this menu. I seriously was so full, I didn’t eat until 2 p.m. the next day. Everything began innocently enough with chili-lime roasted almonds, chipotle cheese ball and crackers. Then the entree arrived and, well, thank heavens I hadn’t eaten lunch. The plate was piled so high and wide with irresistible food.

Chef Gordon plays with TheatreNOW’s Texas theme to create a stuffed pepper to redeem many years of inedible stuffed peppers that typified the ‘80s for me. Rice and beans mixed with lots of cheesy goodness and balanced by sweet red pepper would make any homemaker proud to serve it—and get even the pickiest of eaters to gobble down their vegetables.

Gordon also redeems another of my childhood tragedies: stuffed cabbage leaf. At risk of sounding like Bertha’s ungrateful children, I tried to arrange to be away from home on nights it was served. However, Gordon makes it tangy, savory and appetizing without it turning into a limp-fetid leaf of “beaaaleeech” (apologies to my mother, but really). Honestly, these were already two meals, but I still indulged in more—namely Kugel. Kugel is a basic noodle casserole that can adapt in many ways. Gordon filled hers with cheese and Brussels sprouts. If all this wasn’t enough, she then offers the Kugel with tuna baked in a pastry dough with spinach cream sauce. It is like dying and going to baked dinner heaven: flaky pastry dough, perfectly baked fish—not rubbery tough, just juicy and yummy—and then spinach cream sauce. By the time dessert rolled around, I was defeated—just like Vera with the yard display contest.

“A Tuna Christmas” is a win all around: funny script, great acting and food so good, my mouth waters at the memory. Anyone looking for something to do with out-of-town guests over the holidays will enjoy this great night out.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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