Grand Prairie Arts Council
Directed by Ryan Matthieu Smith
Stage Manager - Cheyney Coles
Set Design - Matt Betz
Lighting Design - Jordan Fetter
Costume Design - Ryan Matthieu Smith
Sound Design - Steven & Chelsea Monty
R. Bradford Smith as:
Aunt Pearl Burras
The Reverend Spikes
Jon Morehouse as:
Harold Dean Lattimer
Little Jody Bumiller
Photos courtesy of Robbye Bond.
Reviewed Performance 3/15/2013
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The venue for the Grand Prairie Arts Council's recent production of Greater Tuna is the Uptown Theater, a fully-restored former 1950s movie theater. Certainly, its ambiance and comfortable seating are conducive to performances, as is the fact that there is truly not a bad seat in the house. The theater is also clearly well-loved among the residents of Grand Prairie as, prior to the show, some of my seatmates and long-time Grand Prairie residents regaled me with childhood memories of time spent watching films at Uptown for less than a quarter apiece.
Given its history, Uptown Theater seems to have been designed for this particular theatrical offering - a play equally well-loved among Texans for both its celebration and satirizing of the quirks of small-town life.
The story's framework is a usual broadcasting day at Tuna, Texas's local radio station, OKKK. The play's scenes shift, featuring the station's on-air personalities, Thurston Wheelis, played by R. Bradford Smith, and Arles Struvie, played by Jon Morehouse, and the other residents of the town, also played by Smith and Morehouse. As the action unfolds, it becomes clear some zany individuals populate the little town of Tuna, the third smallest city in Texas. Religious zealots intent on censoring such offensive material as Romeo and Juliet, a tough yet obtuse sheriff, a UFO-spotting drunkard, and a little old lady afflicted with canicidal thumbitis are only a few of the colorful characters that call Tuna home.
Greater Tuna began as a party skit based on a political cartoon more than 25 years ago and has become one of the most widely-produced plays in the United States, even enjoying command performances at the White House during the tenure of George H.W. Bush. It has spawned three equally amusing sequels: A Tuna Christmas; Red, White, and Tuna; and Tuna Does Vegas. Originally, the lead roles were played by co-authors Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, who earned a Tony nomination for his role, with third co-author Ed Howard, directing. Performers clearly have big shoes to fill.
R. Bradford Smith, as pathetic, well-meaning, book-banning Bertha Bumiller and swaggering, cliche-reciting Reverend Spikes, is alternately convincing and downright hilarious. His performance as Thurston Wheelis is good-natured and amusing, but possesses some unexpected pauses and flubbed lines. Unfortunately, his rendition of Aunt Pearl Burras is more bland than amusing or vicious, his KKK clan head, Elmer Watkins, is non-threatening, and his other characters lack distinction.
Jon Morehouse steals the show with his sharply-etched characters and mastery of visual humor. He has a knack for using not just his posture and voice to change character but his eyes as well. His animal-loving Petey Fisk is entertaining yet pitiable in his earnest determination to save the animals--a seemingly futile plight given the formidable enemy of Aunt Pearl Burras and her "bitter pills."
His Charlene is less feeble and more acerbic than other productions, which makes her more distinctive; his used gun store-owning Didi Snavely is gravelly and lethargically antagonistic, and his fussy, shrouded-insult-slinging Vera Carp is, in a word, genius. Vera Carp is easily one of the funniest and most memorable characters in this production yet gets less stage time than many others. A scene in which Vera falls asleep while listening to the Reverend Spikes eulogize has the audience rolling with laughter.
The actors' transitions from character to character are accomplished by costuming that conveys personality while allowing for quick changes with the help of backstage dressers. Smith and Morehouse are never short of breath despite exiting and re-entering from various stage locations only moments later in completely different costumes. The one hiccup in these transitions occurs when Smith changes from Sheriff Givens to Aunt Pearl Burras on stage. While the glimpse into the backstage world is appreciated, this particular change is rather uninteresting, consisting of the actor wrapping himself in a bathrobe.
Matt Betz's simply-arranged yet elaborately ornamental set provides distinct locations for all of the action to occur while virtually eliminating the need for stagehands. The background for all scenes is distinctly small town Texan, replete with southern memorabilia. The absence of props showcases the talents of the actors as they pantomime their use.
Transitions in the multi-colored string lighting that runs along the top of the set provide a good distraction during scene changes, as does the centrally-located and lit jukebox that continually produces Dolly Parton classics. In addition, in one scene, Lighting Designer Jordan Fetter makes brilliant use of the built-in lights surrounding the Uptown Theater stage to transform the audience into members of the "Smut Snatchers" squad at a meeting helmed by Vera Carp and the Reverend Spikes.
Despite its lampooning of the narrow-minded attitudes of small town life and its mockery of those dedicated to preserving their lifestyle choices at all cost, Uptown Theater's Greater Tuna engenders a genuine affection for its flawed characters and an acknowledgement that divergence from presumed social norms are something in which everyone shares. At its conclusion, you realize that Tuna might not be a place you want to live, but it sure is a fun place to visit.
Grand Prairie Arts Council
Uptown Theater, 120 East Main Street, Grand Prairie, TX 75050
Runs through March 24th
Performances are Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, and Saturday Sunday at 2:00pm.
Tickets are $11.00 - $22.00, depending on seating.
For info go to www.artsgp.com, or call GPAC at 972-642-ARTS or the Uptown Theater box office at 972-237-UPTN (8786)