Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2005
Despite everyone’s best efforts and intentions (and no one except Bialystock and Bloom get up one morning determined to stage a stinker) some shows work and some shows don’t. Back in September of 1999 the Theater Barn gave us an absolutely perfect and hilarious production of A Tuna Christmas. It was so much fun that I still have vivid memories of different scenes implanted in my brain – and considering the huge amount of theatre I see any show that can manage to stick itself in my craw is either an amazing hit or a dreadful flop. So I have literally been looking forward all summer to seeing Greater Tuna at the Barn this September.
The Tuna Trilogy (Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White and Tuna), all penned by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, are not literary gems. But given the right production they can be fun and funny. The authors are genuine Texans and therefore have the right to poke fun at their friends and neighbors, but the Tuna shows are far more bitter than they are sweet, and in an unfortunate cosmic collision this production coincides with a time in American history when, for all their faults and foibles, Texans are the heroes. Ask any Gulf coast evacuee. On a daily basis some Texans may be narrow-minded “smut snatchers” and gun-toting bigots, but ask them to feed and house a few hundred thousand hurricane victims on less than a week’s notice, and they are on the job.
Since Greater Tuna requires two men to perform all the roles, finding the right two actors is key to a production’s success. I had hoped that one of the two performers who made me laugh so hard in 1999 would be appearing in this show, but that was not to be. The two actors here are Mike Bellotti and John Trainor. Bellotti is a very funny man, one who has managed to turn in performances that remain imprinted on my poor, cluttered brain cells, notably his hysterical Hysterium in ...Forum in 2002 (when he was performing under the name of Anthony Devine) and his cheeky Jerry Lukowski in last month’s The Full Monty. Trainor is a well-respected veteran actor and director on the local theatre scene, who is sadly often relegated to playing lovable old coots when, as this production proves, he has so much more to offer.
So here are two talented performers whose work I enjoy. Why did my heart sink when I saw their head shots smiling out at me from the bulletin board in the lobby? Because I couldn’t see them functioning well as a team, and because I worried about whether Trainor’s style was going to be Tuna-style.
I need not have worried about Trainor. This show is a wonderful chance for him to display the range of his talents. He’s not the best drag actor in the world, but each of the male citizens of Tuna, Texas that he tackled were crisp and distinct individuals - so distinct and clearly drawn that I often had to remind myself that I was seeing the same actor. The high point of the entire evening is Trainor’s Act II fire-and-brimstone rant/eulogy as the Reverend Sturgis Spikes - looking like Colonel Saunders and preaching like Martin Luther King, Jr. on cocaine.
Bellotti, on the other hand, always looked just like Mike Bellotti. Once he was kitted out in full drag as “smut snatcher” Vera Carp he was delightful, but in some of the sorry half drag outfits designed by Celestine, Bellotti was unable to make the full transition. I was particularly disappointed in his campy portrayal of Charlene Bumiller. But he did shine as Carp, as Arles Struvie, as the young and innocent Jody Bumiller, and as the equally wide-eyed defender of all the animals, Petey Fisk.
But I was right to worry about the team work. Trainor and Bellotti have their high points separately, they rarely gel together and feel like a team.
Also, on closer inspection, Greater Tuna is a mean-spirited play. It does not poke a gentle finger of fun at the quaint and curious ways of small-town Texans, but takes an enormous hypodermic needle and jabs away mercilessly, like a student nurse who has never drawn blood before. In Tuna people, literally, get away with murder. I am not sure that is so funny.
At the curtain call for a Tuna show the audience should be on its feet shouting, not “Author! Author!”, but “Dressers! Dressers!”, because it must take at least two expert dressers behind the scenes to assist the actors with the quick costumechanges. Here the changes are decidedly slow and the costumes so obvious and shoddy that they are hardly any fun at all. I do not blame the dressers (Lord, I hope there are two of them!) but director Paul Kelly and costume designer Celestine. Kelly should have moved things along more rapidly and Celestine should have used less Velcro and more imagination.
Long ago, while leaving a performance of the annual British-American Panto at the Spencertown Academy, I asked my son Brandon if he hadn’t enjoyed seeing all the men in full drag. To which he replied, “Is there such a thing as half drag?” At that time I thought that there wasn’t, but I have changed my mind. Slapping on a wig, rolling up your trousers, cramming your feet into high heels, and throwing a trench coat over your coat and tie is certainly half drag, maybe even only a quarter drag. It doesn’t make a guy look like a girl and I doubt that it helps him feel or act like one.
The most puzzling choice that Kelly has made is to stage this show with absolutely no props – not a cigarette for DiDi Snavely, a coffee mug for Bertha Bumiller, or a pile of papers for Arles and Thurston to shuffle around on the news desk. Everything is mimed, and you know what, it doesn’t look creative, it looks cheap. Likewise the sound effects are all generated by the actors on stage, which is sometimes funny but sometimes most peculiar and confusing. Listening to an actor speak both ends of a conversation between a human and a dog is just plain silly. Why is that man barking? Because he’s rabid, because the person offstage who was supposed to do it suddenly fainted, or because no one could find the sound effects CD with “barking dog” on it? Sheesh!
There is some fun to be had at this production, but not as much as there could or should be. What a pity the Tuna Fairy didn’t see fit to swoop down and bless the Theater Barn with a second successful visit to the third smallest town in Texas. It could have been so much fun...
Greater Tuna runs through September 18 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. Amusing as this show is I would definitely rate it PG-13. There are bits that would be upsetting or inappropriate for younger kids. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005