Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008

We’ve all been there. You’ve planned a lovely dinner and, five minutes before your guests are to arrive, the soufflé falls and the roast burns. It’s too late to call things off, what are you going to do? Its time for Tuna Surprise! (Doesn’t everyone keep a can of tuna in the pantry for just such an emergency?)

Needless to say, this kind of thing happens all the time in theatre. But The Show Must Go On. Oldcastle had announced a production of Third by Wendy Wasserstein for this slot in the season, but the loss of the lead actress caused them to postpone that production and trot out instead that two-man tour-de-force Greater Tuna. It had been a big success for them in the past and since both actors are still involved with the company and available, it seemed an easy fix.

Unfortunately, this can of tuna is well past its sell-by date. This is Lesser Tuna.

When Oldcastle first sent Richard Howe and Willy Jones out on stage to impersonate all the residents of Tuna, Texas (that state’s fictional third smallest town) it was 1987. The Tuna franchise (Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard wrote three more after this initial outing in 1981) was new and hot. The Oldcastle production was one of the first in this area and marked Jones’ second appearance with the company, where he is now a regular performer as well as director of their second company, Bennington Actors’ Express. I didn’t see it then, nor during its encore presentation in 1988, but the reviews and the word of mouth were good. I always kind of felt that I’d missed something special. I still have.

Whatever magic was there 21 years ago, it’s gone now. You can see glimmers of it in Howe’s performance, which has moments of real brilliance, but this production was so obviously rushed on stage without adequate resources that it never had a chance. The program doesn’t even list a director, although Oldcastle Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson took credit publicly in the Schnectady Daily Gazette. If I were him I would have just kept mum.

The two things that are obviously missing are dressers and Velcro. Yes, in the very, very beginning of the Tuna franchise there were pauses while the actors changed costume, but the addition of dressers and Velcro ended all of that and a big part of the fun of watching a Tuna play became the lightning fast changes.

The benefits of Velcro are obvious. But people who haven’t worked behind the scenes in the theatre may not know that dressers are not chests of drawers but actual human beings whose job it is to assist in costume changes. In general small theatres don’t have them, unless they are mounting a big musical or a show like this. Ideally, there should be two here – one for each actor. Halfway through the second act I began to wonder if there was even one.

Kenneth Mooney is credited with both costume and lighting design. The lights are fine. Jones’ costumes are an embarrassment. Jones is a big man but that does not mean the only way to disguise him is to cut neck and armholes in a pup tent and throw it over his head. Hundreds of large men have been transformed into glamorous Edna Turnblads in productions of Hairspray and I am sure that you can now Rent-a-Tuna with easy-on-easy-off costumes in a variety of sizes. So little thought had gone in to Jones’ costumes, and how he was to get in and out of them, that on opening night he had to make one entrance dressed from the waist down in only underpants and panty-hose. That is embarrassing for all concerned.

And where were the props?

I know that Oldcastle had at least two weeks notice on which to mount this production, which should be plenty when the actors and director have done it all before (your average big Broadway musical is rehearsed in four or five weeks). That is sufficient time to relearn lines (there were some obvious flubs from both actors) and to design and/or gather props and costumes. It was enough time for Howe to design and a crew to build a cute and compact little set.

Performed without adequate speed and with an obvious lack of attention to appearance, the bigotry and violence in the script become more horrifying than humorous.

Tuna can be very tasty. It is inexpensive, low in fat, high in protein and full of that Omega III stuff that is supposed to make you so smart. There is nothing wrong with serving tuna, whether or not the roast burned, but you need to do something more than just dump it out of the can and on to the plate.

Greater Tuna produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through September 14 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs just a hair under two hours with one intermission. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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