BWW Review: RED, WHITE, AND TUNA Delights At The Georgetown Palace
It's been 38 years since GREATER TUNA premiered here in Austin in 1981. Written by Ed Howard, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, this trio are practically legendary among us here in Texas. Mr. Williams notably as a delightful and iconic local actor in Austin. Followed by A TUNA CHRISTMAS, RED, WHITE AND TUNA premiered in 1998, over two decades ago. One might expect with that much space between the Georgetown Palace's current production and the premiere of this two man show, the play might seem outdated or irrelevant - but it is, in this reviewer's point of view, quite the opposite. Positioned against the backdrop of today's current events, this show's southern attitudes are simultaneously endearing and satirical. This is a feat playwright's Williams and Sears managed then, and it seems so relevant still that I had to ask if the production came from an updated script.
If you don't know, Greater Tuna and the three shows that came after (can't forget TUNA DOES VEGAS) involve the people of Tuna, Texas, a fictional town where no one is too irrelevant to matter and the whole town knows your business. The 19 characters of various ages and genders that we meet in RED, WHITE, AND TUNA are all played by two men, and in this production at the Georgetown Palace, they're played with delight, commitment and excellence by Rick Felkins and Kirk Kelso.
Picking up where A TUNA CHRISTMAS left off, we find out in RED, WHITE AND TUNA what happens to Bertha and Arles, who had started a bit of a romance as that chapter in the story concluded. Didi Snavely and R.R. continue some close encounters of the third kind, Stanley blossoms as an artist, and some new folks roll back into town for Tuna's 4th of July Tuna High School Reunion.
Outside Texas, this show has been described as a satirical spoof of life in rural America, but viewed through the eyes of a true Texan, this would be an insulting over-generalization. It's not just rural America, it's Texas, and in Texas, these characters and this story must be played with loving care and respect, lest one incur the wrath of an audience member who very well may be reflected in the characters of this script. It's one thing for us to laugh at us, and another thing entirely for someone who is not a part of the Republic to do so. I jest... sort of.
There are a number of ways this play can go wrong. And if these characters aren't played with authenticity and commitment this show will look exactly like a mere "spoof" - which would be deeply unfortunate. There's a danger of playing these characters one dimensionally, especially with a storyline that can get a pinch outlandish. Fortunately, under the direction of Ron Watson, and in the talented work of Felkins and Kelso, we get a heartwarming and well paced hilarious look into Tuna Texas, and a lovely evening at the theatre. It's bold to choose to mount this production directly in the shadow of where it originated. There are even a few of us who might remember this ever rotating commercial that ran on tv in the 80's. The company and actors who take this on have their work cut out for them - and Felkins and Kelso get it done. Faithful to the people we've come to love in Tuna, Felkins and Kelso keep their characterizations in line with our beloved imaginings of them while also managing to make them authentically their own. Felkins portrayals of Joe Bob Lipsey, R.R. Snavely, and the Reverend Spikes and Kelso's DiDi and Vera are particularly hysterical, but the test of this pair's ability is in the believability of their Bertha and Arles. One can, in fact, imagine as this story winds to its conclusion, that these two have a chemistry that makes us forget there are two men playing these roles.
Most importantly, this show's story line moves at a pace that could, with all the scene and costume changes, be easily ground to a halt. Watson manages to keep it brisk, and it ebbs and flows as it should. If I have any quarrel with this production, it might be with the challenge this small thrust stage presents to a director, and the rake of the audience adds an additional obstacle to any production mounted in this space. In order to give everyone in the house a good vantage point, it is difficult to create staging that feels organic, and I found the blocking in this production to be distracting at times. Barb Jernigan lends her inimitable touch as scenic artist and Rebecca Kelh and Watson give us some nice lighting and sound work in this show.
My minor quibbles shouldn't deter you from enjoying a lovely evening of local theatre, though. Felkins and Kelso are a true delight, and the script actually holds up to the test of time. RED, WHITE, AND TUNA is a delightful start to the Georgetown Palace's 2019-2020 season.
RED, WHITE, AND TUNA
Directed by Ron Watson
Georgetown Palace Playhouse
September 27 - October 20, 2019
817 S. Austin Avenue
Around the corner from the Palace Theatre
Georgetown, TX, 78626
September 27 to October 20, 2019
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets $30, seniors, students and military $28, available online HERE
photo credit Rachel Middleton Britian