Through April 2
160 W. Plant St.,
Comedy is America was established on outrageous ethnic insults. A century ago, vaudeville was built on broad stereotypes of Jews and blacks; early TV sitcoms were stocked with caricatures of women and immigrants; 20-odd years ago you could still make a hit movie ridiculing gays or the disabled. However, now we're more enlightened. It's even becoming objectionable to make fun of fat people.
So Greater Tuna playwrights Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard - along with countless community theaters that have profited from performing their perennially popular comedies - must be deeply grateful that America's socially acceptable prejudice against rural Southerners never seems to diminish. No matter what casual cruelties political correctness might cleanse, poking fun at rednecks remains a treasured pastime. That's certainly true in trendy Winter Garden, where the historic Garden Theatre has been given over to Jester Theater Company's guffaw-generating revival of Greater Tuna.
It's a typical day in the life of Tuna, third-smallest city in the Lone Star State. Start your morning with local radio station OKKK, where Arles Struvie (Tyler Cravens) and Thurston Wheelis (Jay Hopkins) will give you the farm report, if they can remember to turn the transmitter's power on. Have some breakfast with busybody book-burner Bertha Bumiler (Hopkins) and her challenged children: failed cheerleader Charlene, juvenile delinquent Stanley and dizzy dog-magnet Jody (Cravens, Cravens, and Cravens). Spend the afternoon at the funeral parlor with Bertha's dogicidal Aunt Pearl (Hopkins again) while she sings her not-so-fond farewells to the late Judge Buckner; the hangin'-est magistrate in Texas was discovered dead dressed in a Dale Evans one-piece swimsuit, but that won't stop the good Reverend Spikes (more Hopkins) from eulogizing His Honor with a cliche-saturated soliloquy. Before bedtime, plan on a plea from hapless Humane Society staffer Petey Fisk on behalf of a perpetually yipping pooch on the precipice of euthanasia and a friendly farewell from the local Klan chapter.
The Tuna series has thrived since its 1982 off-Broadway debut because of the acerbic affection for small-town America that lies beneath its surface stupidity. I've seen multiple mediocre productions in the last 20 years, so I thank Jester Theater for washing away the bad taste that last serving of Tuna had left in my mouth. Hopkins and Cravens reminded me how entertaining this town can be as they balanced satire against the slapstick.
Physically, the pair make an ideal odd couple, especially when portraying Tuna's female populace: as church lady Vera Carp, the wiry Cravens recalls Dana Carvey's SNL character, while the heftier Hopkins' hulking Bertha bosoms get laughs all by themselves. Both handle the script as deftly as their imaginary props, lending an off-handed improvisational air. Transitions - always tricky with Tuna's teeming multitude of characters - are about as tight as costume changes can allow, and are covered with well-chosen country tunes.
Most importantly, Jester seizes on some of the pathos under the pratfalls, especially in Petey's clumsy closing prayer. To be honest, white trash wackiness always wears thin for me by the end of the second hour, but as Arles and Thurston say: "If you can find someplace you like better than Tuna, move!"