To audiences of a certain comedic disposition, the glass house known as Greater Tuna is a stone-thrower's paradise. A few hours with the inhabitants of tiny Tuna, Texas where the talk-radio station runs on a whopping 275 watts and pre-owned guns make thoughtful gifts is an experience bound to wring condescending belly laughs out of those of us who are used to tonier, more sophisticated habitats. Like … like … well, I have a cousin who lived in one once.
Somehow, The Jester Theater Company has resisted changing its official slogan from "Laugh all you can" to "Laugh at your own risk" for this holiday production, a second helping of characters and situations they interpreted in last year's A Tuna Christmas. Why rub the salt of self-recognition into a paying crowd's wounds, when it's safer just to point one's finger and camp it up? Jester's Jay Hopkins and Jason Horne again play all the citizens of dear little Tuna, starting with on-air nonpersonalities Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie and gradually encompassing 18 other rednecks, hayseeds and/or yahoos. It's a veritable Red Sea of white trash, animated by Hopkins and Horne via some speedy costume changes and mostly nimble character work. (Dialects differ in certain marginal respects, but a dawg's a dawg, and that's that.) While the one- and two-character vignettes that make up the script might first appear to be stand-alone blackouts of the Hee Haw school, they end up advancing a plot that spins a web of small-town scandal, adultery and murder of both the human and canine varieties. Nobody ever said Tuna was pretty.
Jester's inherently vaudevillian approach lends itself well to this sort of material (originally concocted by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard and a favorite of commercially attuned performing companies far and wide). Hopkins and Horne can get laughs just by stepping onstage in some of the more outlandish outfits favored by various Tuna-ites, like the vaguely Wynette-esque powder-blue number worn by blonde book-banner Vera Carp (Horne, who after a recent performance professed not to know what the getup is made of. I'll go out on a limb and venture that it might be chiffon). Not that costumers Diana Hopkins and Bethany Crutchfield deserve all the credit for the audience's uproar. The former's husband, Jay, has a talent for portraying oafs of all stripes and sizes. Well, OK, one size, mostly: When he fastens himself into an oversize pair of overalls and dials up the cornpone schtick, he calls up happy memories of SCTV mountain man Billy Sol Hurok. Horne, meanwhile, is a real utility player, applying his rubbery face and impeccable timing to characters as diverse as decrepit weatherman Harold Dean Lattimer and all three of the snot-nosed kids who try the patience of Hopkins' overtaxed housewife, Bertha Bumiller.
As it stood on opening weekend, the show's weakest aspect was the incongruent rhythms of its writing and performance. Director Anitra Pritchard (an immeasurably gifted comedienne in her own right) hadn't gotten her performers up to a reciting speed that could fully trigger the absurdities that lay, land mine-like, in the script's day-to-day banalities. Some lines (and even one or two entire scenes) hung uncomfortably in the air, depending on audience affection to carry them through. The slightly off pacing undermined Hopkins in particular, whose 14 years with SAK Comedy Lab have honed him into the most valuable kind of improviser one who rejects showboating in favor of laying a foundation that can make his fellow performers look good. That's not always the desired quality when one is delivering a monologue, though; a few times, I found myself hoping for him to really punch a bit rather than graciously giving the stage to Horne especially when the latter wasn't out of the wings to receive it.
Still, I laughed repeatedly, and not just at the mental disconnect between Horne's copious leg hair and that ridiculously gossamer blue outfit. (Maybe it was tulle, after all.) There's a subversive undercurrent to the show that occasionally becomes its gratifying overtext, as when Bertha announces her membership in an initiative called Citizens for Fewer Blacks in Literature or a junior-high student pens an essay titled "Human Rights: Why Bother?" The residents of Greater Tuna aren't just idiots; they're dangerous idiots, and anyone who mounts the show has to heed the distinction. Hopkins and Horne come off like nice guys who live to entertain a room but if that job lets them fire a torpedo straight into the plumber's butt of bigotry, then all the better.
Not that you or I would know anything about the need for such efforts, of course. We's city folk.
Through Dec. 18