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TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT: ‘Greater Tuna’ illuminates humor that hits close to home

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“Greater Tuna” comes with laughs … but after a while they disturb.

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Redneck humor: It’s the base of the show currently being staged at TheatreNOW every Friday and Saturday through October 8. Written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard in the early ‘80s, “Greater Tuna” is the first in a four-part series of plays showing the heedless citizens of the fictitious town, Tuna, Texas (the third smallest town in the state). With more than a dozen people making an appearance during the show, its appeal and humor is derived from two men taking on all the roles in quick-pace fashion. In this case, Zach Hanner and Cullen Moss are the actors challenged with presenting the arc of the story as introduced by dunce radio hosts Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, and all their respective talk-show guests—like Elmer Watkins, leader of the local KKK clan, or six-shootin’ Didi Snavely, owner of Didi’s Used Weapons.

greatrunaLast Friday night Moss’ characters were being played by Phil Antonino (Moss, a well-known TV and film actor in town, happened to have been called out for an audition, which TheatreNOW artistic director Zach Hanner planned for appropriately). It also was opening night, which means any kinks in the show hadn’t been ironed out. However, there really wasn’t a whole lot to tweak in either Hanner or Antonino’s performances. Their chemistry in working off each other’s characters and their comedic timing rarely missed a beat.

The show begins with Struvie (Antonino) and Wheelis (Hanner) on radio station OKKK going through mundane yet disturbing announcements of the conservative town—starting with high schoolers who won the local essay contests, featuring titles like “Human Rights: Why Bother?” or “The Other Side of Bigotry.” It becomes quite clear where the script will be taking all its citizens and the audience in the course of the show: into the darker side of ignorance where quips and easy laughs are had yet manage to send a few questionable ideas into the ether.

As I watched and laughed over Tuna finally producing the on again-off again production of “My Fair Lady,” using last year’s costumes of “South Pacific”—“the first time the show’s ever set in Polynesia; it could put Tuna on the map!”—its punchline sat in my stomach like a brick. And I paraphrase: “It’s the first time they will integrate the show, and they encourage others, like blacks, Asians and minorities, to sign up for the chorus … the chorus only. And now the farm report.”

Hanner and Antonino impress with the ease at which they switch between their stage identities and genders. Hanner nails it as the mean-as-a-hornet, dog-killing old lady, Pearl Burras. His one-syllable words become two-syllables in a heavy Southern drawl that transform a regional colloquialism like “I swear” into “I sa-wahr.” He has the look down pat—lace shawl, forgettable button-up dress, clunky black shoes and hat—and mannerisms with hunched-over demeanor and cane-walking strain. This is his most interesting character in the show because Pearl is the poster child for: “And no fucks were given.”

Hanner’s Bertha Bumiller probably parallels some of the more disturbing paradigms still in existence in 2016—even though it seems the show is set some 30 or 40 years ago as noted in a prop, a newspaper headline which talks about Elvis’ new wife, Linda Thompson, on the front page (maybe an “Enquirer”?). Bumiller is a large woman and Hanner seemingly gives a larger-than-life air of confidence to match, which makes her ignorance all the more believable. When a liberal, straight-laced reporter from Houston, Chad Hartford (played forthright if not a little dull by Antonino), comes to interview Bumiller about why she wants to ban certain books from the school library, all Bumiller seems to be worried about is whether he will find out about her delinquent home life, made up of an alcoholic husband and a few derelict and special children. Nevermind she thinks “Roots” only shows one side of slavery, or “Romeo and Juliet” boasts sex between teens and shows rampant disregard for parental authority. “We need to protect the minds of our children,” Bumiller exclaims.

It’s an asinine notion that continues circulating our world currently—if anything, seen just a few years ago in our own corner of the world. Brunswick County schools were forced to look at a parent’s challenge of Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” as being morally unacceptable. Why is any of this important? Well, though we know such notions are presented as light-hearted writing in “Greater Tuna,” meant to showcase the caricature nature of extreme conservative beliefs, the reality of it is actually scary. Bertha Bumiller still exists today—you may even know her. She hangs her hat on being the only high C soprano in the Baptist church and also leads the group “Fewer Blacks in Literature.” Kinda feels unsettling to laugh about stereotypes like this continuously seen in Southern humor.

While Hanner manages to flesh out most characters in a truly believable way—Elmer Watkins as a hippie-hating, veteran-supporting, gun-toting intimidator among them—some could be run-of-the-mill anyones, like Leonard Childers, station manager of OKKK.

Antonino’s characters wax and wane, except when he takes on Didi Snavely. She’s Tuna’s Annie Oakley, basically, and is as spit-fire in her antics and storytelling as any cowboy of the Wild West. Antonino soars as Petey Fisk, employee of the Greater Tuna Humane Society, with perfectly paced slow speech, decrepit motions and ideas on how to turn Pearl-the-dog-killer into a dog lover. He also grasps everyone’s attention as all the Bumiller children: Stanley, a hellraising, law-breaking nuisance who screams every sentence; Charlene, who seemingly pulsates every female teenage hormone with awkward, intense abandon; and Jody, whose odd addiction to collecting dogs is adorable if not worrisome.

The set is great and moves rather fluidly between many scenes to be portrayed: radio station, front porch, the Bumiller and Burra households, the humane society, etc. The main problem I have with the show comes fundamentally from the script.  After a while, the jokes become too much, especially seeing as there is very little of a storyline. The show is more a string of questionable character studies. Backwoods antics and truths bother me more than humor me. Yet, the actors do a superb job transitioning between the noise that rises from the playwrights’ words. With only one intermission, it’s a lot to take in. Somehow, Denise Gordon’s dinner menu feeds the soul with a little more gumption  to make it alright.

The menu is Southern-inspired,  with tender Texas brisket and grilled onions melting through buttery rolls and Dr. Pepper-spiced BBQ sauce dripping onto the plate. Paired with a garlicky mac ‘n’ cheese, I could have eaten both items everyday for the next week and forgotten about the political, cultural and societal disparities plaguing our world.  The collards are good but not quite as good as my grandmother’s, while the green-chile doused chicken could benefit from more green chile. The send-off of light, fluffy, French-style crème brûlée cheesecake put me in a certifiable food coma. I admit: I am not the biggest crème brûlée or cheesecake fan, but this dessert is damn (or as they’d say in Tuna, “day-um”) decadent.

Greater Tuna
Fri. and Sat., through Oct. 8
Directed by Justin Smith, with Zach Hanner and Cullen Moss
Phil Antonino will take on Moss’ roles on Sept. 24 and 25.
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.
Tickets: $17-$37

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