A dynamic duo of comic players inhabit multiple roles for the Southern-fried satire of A Tuna Christmas
By James MacKillopBusy Dustin Czarny runs two local companies, and usually the twain ne’er will meet. The larger group, Not Another Theater Company (NATC), produces scripted shows, both comedies (The Odd Couple) and dramas (A Few Good Men). The other outfit, Don’t Feed the Actors, is an improvisation company that actually predates NATC. Two of the stalwarts of the comedy troupe are players of contrasting physical types: taller, plumpish Greg Hipius and shorter, wiry Gerrit Vander Werff Jr., who, as pals of Czarny, have showed up in NATC productions. This time with Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard’s A Tuna Christmas, they’re the whole show for NATC’s dinner-theater production at the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice Banquet Hall, 528 Hiawatha Blvd. And even though the duo follows a complicated script, most of the comedy comes from skills honed in improv.
Most audiences will enter with the show’s premise well in hand. The Tuna of the title is a tiny burg in Texas, third smallest to have its own radio station, OKKK. At a time before syndicates like Clear Channel choked off local voices, color commentary at OKKK was delivered by the more assertive Thurston Wheelis (Hipius) and his agreeable sidekick Arles Struvie (Vander Werff), whose hip flask is always handy. Those are the base personae of the two players, to which they can return when the threads of the narrative appear to knot up. As the names of different locals appear in the on-microphone patter, and more candidly off-microphone, Hipius and Vander Werff bring them alive. That means each must impersonate 10different people who have been talked about, of different ages, both genders, and, for extra crackle, of differing sexual persuasions.
A Google image search reveals that Hipius and Vander Werff bear a passing resemblance to the two players who helped create the Tuna franchise 30 years ago and have been living off it ever since, Joe Sears (the round one) and Jaston Williams (the skinny one). Hipius and Vander Werff are usually a part of Don’t Feed the Actors rather than being a comedy duo, but they’re building on a well-established visual pairing; think Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and, before that, Mutt and Jeff.
In the division of labor with gags each gets his fair share, but Vander Werff’s characters (with one big exception) tend to be edgy and pugnacious. His women are usually bitchier. Hipius favors the sweeter, more addlepated sorts. One of his women is looking for romance. For much of the early action of A Tuna Christmas we’re carried along by what kind of impersonation tricks Hipius and Vander Werff can come up with next, with more wigs and falsettos, and almost forget that the semblance of a plot is a-building.
From Al Capp’s Dogpatch through TV’s Hee-Haw we’ve had a long tradition of satire directed at the rural South. Since the original Greater Tuna (1981) and A Tuna Christmas (1989), this same turf has also become Red State America. And, sure enough, the audience for station OKKK loves guns and hates foreigners. It’s also a section of the Bible Belt where there’s still plenty of sinning going on, and serving time in state prison brings no stigma. The first character to pop up, Elmer Watkins (Hipius), delivers a muted plug for the Klan, but he’s done quickly. Even though Syracuse is a bona fide corner of Blue State America, the current production comes without the kind of sneer one sees in email forwardings on the grotesqueries of Wal-Mart shoppers. Director Deborah Pearson retains some of the gentleness and acceptance of the show’s Texas-based creators.
Some of the gun gags could go over well with a Central New York chapter of the National Rifle Association. Dealer Didi Snavely (Vander Werff) urges, “Wouldn’t you rather shoot someone than have them run off with your toaster?” Or the slogan for her used weapons, “If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal.”
Adding the Christmas theme to this shtick provides entry for a whole series of new gags, such as the annual lawn display competition, sponsored by OKKK, and the Tuna Little Theatre production of A Christ mas Carol by Charlie Dickens. Both of these sound innocuous enough, but they provoke tensions.
Any artistic enterprise brings out the vigilant Smut-Snatchers led by snooty, blonde Vera Carp (Vander Werff ), who’s trying to get “Silent Night” banned with its suggestive line about “round, young virgins.” She’s allied with the much older Dixie Deberry (Vander Werff ), controller of the electric company, who will turn off the juice to stop public displays of immorality. Vera is also a key player in the display contest, which she has won 14 years in a row—until the arrival this Christmas of the mischievous vandal known as the “Christmas Phantom.”
We learn about the Little Theatre production through the longings of wannabe actress Charlene Bumiller (Vander Werff ), who has a hopeless crush on harassed director Joe Bob Lipsey (Hipius). The advice that Joe Bob is “out of the ordinary” does not seem to register with Charlene and, wisely, the director does not make an appearance until late in the second act. His beret, sunglasses and fussy manner confirm to us that he’s not the marrying kind. He is allowed, however, one of the show’s best lines: “I haven’t had this many problems since trying to mount the all-white production of Raisin in the Sun.”
As we see more of them than any other family, the Bumillers take more of the action than anyone in further subplots. Vander Werff plays all the children, not only Charlene but her twin brother Stanley, recently released from reform school and an aspiring taxidermist, and snotty little Jody in a back-turned baseball cap. We never see the philandering father but with long-suffering Bertha, Hipius creates the show’s only character that is deeper than a cartoon. Her greatest threat as a disciplinarian is to put on an Andy Williams record.
True, Bertha’s a militant Smut-Snatcher, but her tenderness toward Stanley with his probation struggles gives this Christmas show a break from its antic pace.
set design, painted by Meghan Pearson, allows for instant exits,
changes and entrances. Without Karen Procopio’s wigs, however, there
would have been no show. Sometimes the wigs and costumes are more
distinctive than the accents and vocal pitches. Lastly, Southern
Baptists do not express their piety by making the Sign of the Cross.
This production runs through Saturday, Nov. 19. See Times Table for information.