*Greater Tuna* and *A Tuna Christmas,* directed by Patrick Treadway; through Sept. 9
Beefy guys in drag, high-pitched silly voices, audiences taking child-like delight in the actors’ rapid costume changes: the *Tuna* plays, seen locally before, offer predictable joys. But can the current productions at Actors Rep of both *Greater Tuna* and *A Tuna Christmas* (alternating dates through Sept. 9) pull off more than just high jinks and farce?
These small-town laugh-fests concocted by a trio of Texas playwrights — Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard — are crowd-pleasers. But in his program note, Artistic Director Michael Weaver says that “The Tuna Project” will be going after matters both “hilarious and socially significant.” William Marlowe and Weaver have performed these shows before, both separately and together, so they know the material. How deep could they go into these characters? And is there much depth there to begin with?
Despite a few flaws, there are sequences in these two plays that are so good, they’ll make your jaw drop. For example, when visitors drop by the white-trash Bumillers’ trailer, they have to confront a pack of hyper-excited little dogs nurtured by son Jody. Marlowe and Weaver themselves provide the whooping doggie yips. Somehow they manage to give several of the dogs distinct personalities. Weaver looks for all the world like he’s doing frustrated pirouettes amid a pack of little yapping Chihuahuas. And yet the pooches are invisible.
Marlowe immerses himself in some of the characters so thoroughly that you blink to make sure it’s still the same guy under that new dress, that wig, those pearls. His most endearing portrait may be of poor old Petey Fisk of the Humane Society, kind-hearted but inept. With his eyes darting to the ceiling with insecurity and buttoned down tight in his Minnesota earflaps, Petey makes periodic appeals on radio station OKKK on behalf of the dogs, cats, coyotes and crocodiles that other people just don’t want. Petey is a pathetic, laughable loner — but he has a good heart, and his compassion’s genuine, which is more than you can say for most of the folks in this dusty little town. By getting past nerdiness in his characterization, Marlowe makes Petey both ridiculous and admirable.
In fact, it’s tempting to say that Marlowe excels at the physical humor and Weaver at the pathos — until you recall the number of times that Marlowe achieves tender sentiment and Weaver gets all frantic and hilarious. Together, they play the final scene of *A Tuna Christmas* with involving warmth: Marlowe’s young juvenile delinquent (his red Mohawk striped with green for Christmas) and Weaver’s Aunt Pearl suddenly become more than just circus freaks. For all their dysfunction, people out on the Texas plains have the same needs and ideals that we do.
For further comments on Bill Marlowe as Vera Carp, on Patrick Treadway's direction, on the plays' stereotypes, and on Michael Weaver as Bertha Bumiller, pick up a copy of Thursday's *Inlander.*