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It’s old news that the Tuna guys are funny. Quick-change comics Jaston Williams and Joe Sears have been bringing the 20 or so denizens of Texas’ third-smallest town to D.C. for a decade and a half, so word’s spread about the shenanigans of such folks as censorious Smut Snatcher Vera Carp (Williams), who is rewriting Baptist hymns to eliminate the racy parts, and mutt-poisoning Pearl Burras (Sears), who has a gravitas second only to Kate Smith’s.
Fans now greet gravel-voiced Didi Snavely (Williams again)—who answers the phone at her Used Weapons Shop with a cheery, “If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal”—as an old friend. Ditto long-suffering mom Bertha Bumiller (Sears) and her sweetie, Arles Struvie (Williams), an announcer on local radio OKKK, where the announcement that a group is holding its Fourth of July rally on July 5 is business as usual.
After countless visits in Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas, Williams and Sears qualify as a comic institution. If you haven’t caught them yet, shame on you. And shame on me for not explaining sufficiently why you should.
Red, White and Tuna, their saga’s third installment, enlarges slightly on the rueful quality that has always been present in the characters. But it doesn’t stint on laughs. The town of Tuna is staging a high school reunion, complete with a hotly contested election for Reunion Queen. Coming home for the festivities are the likes of R.R. Snavely, who has been kidnapped by aliens, and the tie-dyed, spaced-out newcomers Amber Windchime and Star Birdfeather (formerly known as Fern and Bernice), who’ve been auditing their karma in Lubbock. Also on hand are Stanley Bumiller, whose career in taxidermy finally took off when he invented “roadkill sculpture,” and devoted animal rightist Petey Fisk, who’ll lock himself into a Plexiglas hut with 50 live scorpions to protest the “Varmint, Critter, and Pest Fest.”
Why are these folks a riot, rather than appalling? Partly because their locutions (“It’s hotter ‘n a gnat’s snatch on the equator”) aren’t heard much hereabouts, and partly because sitcom animosity, whether veiled (“You know I’ve always liked Vera, but not very much”) or not so veiled (“Look at Pearl Burras out there, makin’ shade”), is bound to prompt a yuk or two. Trot out a quip that could have been penned by Neil Simon (“I’ve never liked stop signs….They are so abrupt”) and there’s no reason it shouldn’t score, too.
I’m less sure why it’s bust-a-gut funny when Smut Snatchers member Bertha defends herself from accusations of swearing with the proclamation “‘Pee’ is not a cuss word, it’s a function.” A mind-set is being presented there, not a joke. Accurately observed, the line ought, at most, to be good for a chuckle of recognition. It doesn’t get a laugh when your mother says it; when Bertha says it, people fall in the aisles.
Credit their timing, perhaps? Sears and Williams are deft at calibrating not just punch lines, but pauses, slow burns, head-turns, dance steps, and, most especially, gaits. There’s not a character who doesn’t shuffle or amble in the audience’s presence, but the actors clearly turn into dervishes backstage to make their costume changes so quickly.
Just to let patrons know how much they’re doing back there, they do one slower change out front. Cynical Pearl and dyspeptic Stanley turn their backs to the audience, and—after an adjusting of wigs, a shedding of robes and headbands, a donning of vests, an adjusting of petticoats, and finally a shifting of postures that tells more about the differences in the characters than all these other changes together—they turn back as late-blooming lovers Bertha and Arles.
You recognize them before they’ve spun even a fraction of the way…and are poised to laugh before they say a word.
The affection that fans of the Reduced Shakespeare Company feel for the cutups who shred history, literature, and common sense in their various Complete (Abridged) shows is a little different. “The Other RSC” specializes in cloaking quips about whatever topic they’re skewering in showbiz raiments. They have taken on the Bard, the Bible, and Manifest Destiny in past outings, in styles ranging from vaudeville to Sunday-school pageant, invariably with ad-libs and squirt guns at the ready.
For its head-on, decidedly giddy collision with 1,000 years of world history, The Complete Millennium Musical (Abridged), the company has opted to concentrate its comic energies on music, effectively updating a musical revue format that was popular in the ’60s, back before someone decreed that all theatrical revues had to be about composers.
“We wrote some great numbers,” says follicularly challenged Reed Martin, by way of introduction. “My favorite is three.” And before you can say, “Punnier-than-thou,” he and his compatriots Austin Tichenor and Dee Ryan have launched into a patter song about explorer Leif Erikson and his buds (“Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse”), a spirited Lloyd Webber spoof about the bubonic plague (“Rats”), and a jazzy ode to the Inquisition’s notions of justice (“Let ‘Em Swing”), all with music by Nick Graham, who penned Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” and other ditties before going parodistic.
For the RSC, the millennium’s great inventors naturally include Thomas Crapper (“Flush Your Troubles Away”) and Wilbur and Orville Redenbacher. A teenaged Galileo can be counted on to sing a masturbatory hymn to “Heavenly Bodies” of a more earthly sort than most historians credit him with observing, and the greatest art of the millennium is given its due in a sketch about impressionist painters in which Toulouse-Lautrec does a spiffy impression of Samuel Morse as a tap-dancer.
Sophomoric? Absolutely. In fact, freshmanic is more like it, with the emphasis on “manic” because the cast members must work harder than usual to stay anarchic in the presence of musical rhythms. Sometimes, especially in the second half, the strain shows. But mostly, the troupe’s historical survey “from Beowulf to Baywatch”—or, in gay terms, “from Alexander the Fabulous to Ellen de Generous”—is pretty airy.
Also watery. The squirt guns come out for a space-walk number (no seat in the house is safe, so don’t wear silk) for no better reason than that every RSC show has squirt guns. Considering that these folks direct themselves, it’s nice to be able to report that the visual jokes are often as flashy as the verbal ones. A Sistine Chapel-viewed-from-above trick is sensational.
The visuals in Woolly Mammoth’s new farce, The Art Room, are also intriguing. Robin Stapley has created a quirkily off-kilter mental hospital with a row of deep-set, trapezoidal doors from which it’s easy to imagine Alice in Wonderland-ish characters springing brightly into life. The creatures who actually emerge from those doors are indeed mad as hatters. They’re not, alas, as interesting.
Playwright Billy Aronson, whose credits range from Broadway’s Rent to TV’s Beavis & Butt-Head Show, has taken his inspiration in The Art Room from a Georges Feydeau farce, and that row of doors certainly seems to promise a slamming good time. But almost as soon as Aronson introduces the mental patients who are his chief characters, it becomes clear he’s in trouble. Farce is usually about taking sane characters and making them crazy through escalating misunderstandings. When they start crazy, there’s nowhere for them to go. Except crazier. And while Aronson has given everybody traits that might be funny, he hasn’t really found ways to connect them to each other.
Seriously introverted Jackie (Jennifer Mendenhall) spends her days buffing the floor with a sock and pretending that she’s married to head-lice-obsessed Jon (Oliver Wadsworth), who thinks of himself as a ladies’ man but is too fidgety to follow through on a seduction. Enormous, childlike Thomas (Delaney Williams) is anxious to please but has a short attention span. And narcoleptic Madeline (Maia DeSanti) tends to fall asleep at the awkwardest moments possible. Also in attendance are Nurse Norma (Lynn Steinmetz), who has taken to lying to everyone about her job, and Madeline’s businessman husband, Art (Hugh Nees), who walks around with a cellular phone in one hand and a dictation machine in the other.
Aronson doesn’t seem interested in the inmates-taking-over-the-asylum aspects of the situation, and getting a sex farce going when there’s nothing particularly at stake is problematic. In a mental institution, the line “She’s the best, but I found someone who’s more best” doesn’t pack much comic punch.
Which leaves plot. To Jackie’s consternation, Jon tries to get a romance going with Madeline, while Madeline’s hubby makes eyes at the nurse, and…oh, never mind. No sense spoiling what surprises the evening has. The actors flail and twitch, some of them winningly, others less so, but it’s hard to play farce purely as frenzy. And although director Sara Chazen keeps things moving briskly enough, both she and the playwright seem to forget which obsession goes with whom as the evening progresses. By intermission, dopey Thomas is the one scratching for head lice, Madeline’s businessman husband is the one with the attention deficit, and Nurse Norma has caught the fidgets from Jon. Madeline’s narcolepsy, meanwhile, has mostly spread to the other side of the footlights. CP