Tuna Christmas

Theatre Huntsville is running an impressive two-person show, A Tuna Christmas, through tomorrow at the VBC Playhouse.  The artistry and talent displayed on the stage are worth the price of admission.

This show is part of the “Tuna” series of plays, following on from the original Greater Tuna.  There isn’t really a plot, but rather a sequence of loosely connected vignettes, with some common characters that tie things together.  Christmas uses the same major gimmick as the original, with the entire cast of 22 characters being played by only two actors.  This is a “southern comedy”, in that it’s set in the South, and much of the humor revolves around the small-town personalities.  Southern comedies are not to everyone’s taste (generally, they aren’t my preference), and this is not even one of the better scripts in that category.  In most southern comedies, the characters are lovable goofs, but in Tuna, most of the personalities are entirely unlikable, and display some of the worst Southern stereotypes.  This script can also be a bit depressing, if one steps back from the jokes to really think about what is happening–an entire town is struggling vainly to find Christmas cheer, and generally failing.  Add to this, some of the new characters added since Greater Tuna (like the waitresses “Inita” and “Helen”), seem tacked on merely for extra jokes and an excuse to slip in even more cameo roles to run up the character count.  All that said, if you don’t stop to think about the reality of the situations, and instead just relax and take the humor at face value, there are plenty of laughs to be had.

Jay Hixon has done a very nice job as Director, softening the edges around some of the less likable characters, and staging a very relaxed, comfortable show.  The blocking and stage pictures are natural, and most of the character levels are well captured.  Frankly, this show works because of the two-actor gimmick, and luckily, the audience is in good hands with these two performers.  It is a treat watching Joel Kreipe and Christopher Kelly Carter each tackle eleven different characters, and bring them all to life.  They are both phenomenal, and each have some truly amazing moments.  While their vocal variations aren’t as varied as they might be, the physical distinctions between the characters are impressive, with their female roles often trumping the male ones.  Kreipe’s extended turns as the grandmotherly “Pearl Burras”, and the long-suffering wife and mother, “Bertha Bumiller”, are wonderful moments on stage, and well capture a couple of the few sympathetic characters in this show.  Carter’s turns as “Charlene Bumiller”, the clueless star-struck teen, and “Vera Carp”, the token rich person in town, are truly fascinating, distinct characters.

The technical elements support the show well.  The scenery, by Robby Brueggeman, is fairly straightforward and utilitarian, but it manages to provide an acceptable backdrop to nearly a dozen different locations in Tuna.    The costumes, by Gay Broad and company, work very well to help distinguish the many characters, and were obviously constructed with quick-changes in mind (a special shout-out to the large crew of backstage Dressers, without whom the show could not happen).  The lighting, by Cynthia Meyer, ably paints the various pictures, and helps to focus audience attention, and the sound, by Gordon Williamson provides very nice effects to compensate for the miming of many of the hand props (again, with a shout-out to the sound board operator, Martez Clemmons, for the tight timing on those cues).

Overall, while the script is not the best, and the show entirely relies on the gimmick of two actors playing all the roles, this is still a successful night at the theatre, because the right two actors are on the stage.  Only a few more performances of A Tuna Christmas remain, so don’t miss the chance.  Show times and ticket information can be found here.

A version of this review may appear on AL.com, though I have little control over when.  Keep an eye on my profile page there.

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