Small-town characters offer big-time laughs in 'Greater Tuna'

Friday, July 20, 2007

Think of it as a weird hybrid of "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Hee-Haw."

The people of Tuna, Texas, aren't the most educated, culturally sensitive people you'll ever meet.

In fact most of them are xenophobic, racist, eccentric, ultraconservative bigots, at least as they are as portrayed in the comedy "Greater Tuna," a character study of the quirky personalities found in Texas' "third-smallest town." Starting tonight the River City Players community theater troupe is bringing those characters to life, hilariously.

The roughly two-hour "Greater Tuna" is basically a series of vignettes featuring the odd folk of Tuna, with the action centered primarily in the studios of radio station OKKK (yes, that is a reference to the Klan you see there). Think of it as some sort of weird hybrid of "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Hee-Haw" and you have some approximation of what you'll see if you choose to watch "Tuna," a play which spawned a popular stage comedy franchise.

Sandi Shaw tackled the project as her River City Players directorial debut, also portraying the teenage delinquent Stanley Bumiller, a camo-clad idiot with anger management issues; his outcast twin sister Charlene, who shares her brother's idiocy, along with a strong desire to make the cheerleader squad; and R.R. Snavely, a drunken fiddle player whose wife, the pill-popping Didi (Gelanie Lockhart) runs a gun and knife shop.

If the actors' proficiency in playing these oddball parts is any indication, Shaw did quite a job for a rookie.

Lisa Lambert makes her RCP acting debut in "Tuna," portraying the eccentric, insane, dog-murdering Pearl Burras and the good-old-boy Sheriff Givens. As Pearl, Lambert kills -- she's hands down the funniest character in the entire play.

Not to say the others aren't funny -- in fact, every one of them is, at some point, gut-busting hilarious, from radio personalities Arles Struvie (Ryan Heslinga), Thurston Wheelis (Phil Shaw) and Leonard Childers (Heslinga) to the smut-crusading "good Baptist woman" Vera Carp (Amanda Robertson) to local KKK chapter leader Hank Watkins (Mike Craig).

But this comedy isn't clean, nor is it friendly to small towns. Writers Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard don't hesitate to poke fun at the racism and ignorance that sometimes seems so prevalent in small towns.

People in Tuna call blacks "Negroes" and biracial people "mixed." Their high school students write essays with titles like "Human Rights: Why Bother?" And Bertha Bumiller (Craig), a member of the Censorship in Textbooks Committee and the president of Citizens for Fewer Blacks in Literature, wants to remove the book "Roots" from the high school library because it only shows one side of the slavery issue. And they love to burn rock 'n' roll records.

The characters in "Tuna" are caricatures of people many of us in Southeast Missouri have probably met in real life, which makes it that much funnier.

Don't take the children to this one, but if you want to laugh and feel better about your own intelligence, you can't go wrong with "Greater Tuna."

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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