Well done but dated
|New American Folk Theatre presents|
|Deep in the Heart of Tuna|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Deep in the Heart of Tuna is the newest script in the Tuna series. The short plays chronicling the wacky exploits of the third-smallest town in Texas began 35 years ago with Greater Tuna. Since then, playwrights Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams have penned A Tuna Christmas; Red, White and Tuna; and Tuna Does Vegas. According to its press release, Deep in the Heart of Tuna is a kind of “best of” collaboration of all four. I’ve seen and enjoyed Greater Tuna, the premiere installment that’s primarily a typical morning in the Tuna radio station. If Deep in the Heart of Tuna is any indication, the first is the best of the lot, while the rest are weaker, watered-down spin-offs with humor that’s politically incorrect and no longer humorous in today’s political climate. Though well-directed by Derek Van Barham and featuring two actors who play a myriad of characters to comedic hilt, Deep in the Heart of Tuna suffers from a dated script with very few genuine laughs.
New American Folk Theatre company members Grant Drager and Anthony Whitaker (who’s also set designer and company Co-Artistic Director) portray all of the play’s characters, citizens of Tuna, Texas. There’s Bertha Bumiller and her dysfunctional family, including an aunt who enjoys poisoning dogs, a son fresh out of reform school, another son who can’t get animals to stop following him home and a daughter who swears her life is over because she didn’t make cheerleader. Meanwhile, the local animal shelter is desperate to get rid of its yappy dog, the community theater’s production of A Christmas Carol is in jeopardy due to an unpaid light bill, and referring to Jesus Christ’s mother as a “virgin” is too smutty and best left to the Catholics. Radio hosts Thurston and Arles, characters from the original Greater Tuna, oversee and narrate the action.
The problem with topical humor is that it rarely ages well. Many of the script’s bits from Greater Tuna are still genuinely funny – who doesn’t laugh at the idea of a My Fair Lady set in Polynesia due to budget constraints and leftover South Pacific sets? In Greater Tuna, Thurston and Arles present small-town life in less than 90 minutes, highlighting its quirks with a healthy dose of wry humor and pathos. Deep in the Heart of Tuna seems to rely on gags that modern audiences have long outgrown: someone’s “dating a Mexican,” there are cracks about a teenage girl’s weight and of course, jokes at the expense of an unseen homosexual. The playwrights don’t quite seem to grasp that humor evolves with the times, and I’m not sure why NAFT chose this particular Tuna installment. Also, though I understand the actors’ need for a break, the production contains an intermission that seems contrived and hasty.
It’s a shame that the script is so shoddy and mostly unfunny, because the cast and production team are talented and try hard. Director Van Barham was at the helm of Bite: A Pucking Queer Cabaret, one of my favorite shows of 2016, as well as the acclaimed and currently-running Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Here, he treats the characters as real people rather than over-the-top down-home caricatures, and makes wonderful choices in staging and transitions. Kallie Rolison’s sound design features lovely instrumentals and country-pop hits, and Kate Setzer Kamphausen assembles a fun variety of outfits and wigs for the two actors. Whitaker shines in every role, male and female, giving specific, unique characterization to Bertha, her aunt, Thurston and many others. And Drager is as convincing in drag as he is in trousers, bringing real heart to angsty Charlene Bumiller and sweet, lonely Arles.
Just like its previous Dark of the Moon, New American Folk Theatre’s faults lie not with its players but with its script choices. No matter how skilled the director, cast and production team, if the source material isn’t good, the entire show suffers. Unfortunately, this consequence is on full display in Deep in the Heart of Tuna. Nostalgia doesn’t always carry the day, and the production left me unsatisfied, wondering what this company could do with a stronger play.
Deep in the Heart of Tuna continues through March 5th at The Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at NewAmericanFolkTheatre.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Theodore A. Thomas
behind the scenes
Derek Van Barham (director), Anthony Whitaker (set design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Rachel Lake (lighting design), Kallie Rolison (sound design), Keith Ryan (wig design), Jamal Howard (production manager), Neill Kelly (stage manager), Theodore A. Thomas (photography)