BWW Review: Rice and Sochocki Serve Up Some Holiday Laughs in A TUNA CHRISTMAS
You'd be hard pressed to find a seasonal outing quite so much fun, a Christmas party more tantalizingly outrageous or performances more outlandish than in A Tuna Christmas, the holiday-themed comedy that features the denizens of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, in all their Lone Star State finery, searching for a missing husband, attempting to ferret out "the Christmas Phantom" and hoping for that perfect photograph for next year's greeting cards.
Now onstage at Nashville's Fontanel Mansion - where it's ensconced in the Natchez Hills Winery tasting room through December 16 - A Tuna Christmas remains as delightful (and the characters just as daft as you remember) as it most likely was the first time you met the almost two dozen citizens of the town. Directed with a knowing touch and much confidence by Vance Nichols, Fontanel's creative director (who spends a great deal of his time overseeing the gorgeous setting of the home that was once occupied by the legendary Barbara Mandrell and her wildly creative and talented family), A Tuna Christmas stars local stage favorites Scott Rice and Leo Sochocki who, in retrospect, may be my favorite duo ever to take on the challenge of a Tuna word salad of larger than life-sized characters and their thoroughly ridiculous exploits that exemplify the comedy world of the fictional town.
The second in a series of raucous comedies set in Tuna (Greater Tuna was the first and original imprint, with A Tuna Christmas landing onstage in the number two spot, and followed by Red, White and Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas), the Christmas edition focuses on efforts by Vera Carp to win the town's Christmas lawn display trophy for the fifteenth time so she can retire the cup, the exploits of Pearl Burrus and Dixie Deberry to make sure that doesn't happen anytime soon and community theater director Joe Bob Lipsey to stage A Christmas Carol before the show's power is turned off due to non-payment. It's all over the top, in an outsized Texas sort of way, but there's enough of the truth about the hijinks to ensure every audience member can recall similar incidents from their own lives.
More importantly, the characters - originally created by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard for its 1981 debut in Austin, Texas - are written with such gleeful abandon and so much heart that you can't help but think of people you know and love who have done much the same in their zeal to celebrate the perfect holiday. The citizens of Tuna, who populate the four different plays, are heightened renditions of down-home, big-hearted souls who may be found all over the southern United States (as well as points northward, we suspect) and if you can find the right pair of actors to assay all the myriad roles, your theater company can raise enough funds to keep the electric bill from falling into arrears.
With two other productions staged concurrently (Ryan Bowie and Brian Best are making merry through Tuesday, December 18, at Roxy Regional Theatre's The Otherspace in Clarksville, while Bryce Conner and Brett Myers take on the roles and the wigs for Dickson's Gaslight Dinner Theatre for a production from the Renaissance Players through Saturday, the 15th - all of which goes to show you that your time for a trip to Tuna is, indeed, somewhat limited, your window of opportunity quickly coming to a close for now), the Fontanel edition proves a success with its artful blending of Rice and Sochocki, the play's sometimes frenetic pace and a script that's chockful of comic misadventures that are sure to set any audience laughing from the very beginning, regardless of their personal levels of holiday fatigue.
Williams, Sears and Howard's scripts for the casserole of Tuna comedies are wonderfully zany yet warmly affection toward the characters, sending them up in the tradition of the best of satirical comedy and the jokes (there's something for everyone, regardless of political affiliation or personal identification) fly fast and furious, while the Christmas spirit is felt strongly and heartwarmingly in moments that you might find unexpected. But, hell, in this day and age, we probably don't have to tell you this: "The Tuna Trilogy (plus one)" have proven so insanely popular in these parts that you practically can't leave a production of Steel Magnolias and without tripping over the queue of audiences clamoring for tickets to another Tuna serving.
A Tuna Christmas was first produced in 1989 and was subsequently performed for President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, at the White House (as was Greater Tuna) and the show became a regular holiday fixture at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center until Sears retired from the troupe and the tour came to an end in 2012. To say its appeal is universal, its fans rabid and loyal, would teeter perilously close to understatement and who's got time for that in this, the most wonderful time of the year?
Sochocki, taking on the Arvis Stuvie track originated by Jaston Williams in the original, proves himself an adept actor/comedian with a command of the play's sometimes tongue-twisting verbal demands and the challenging quick-changes for which the Tuna comedies are justifiably appreciated. In short order, he's Arles Struvie; Didi Snavely (the owner of Didi's Used Weapons whom you expect to cough up a lung any minute what with her constantly burning cigarettes dangling from her lips - so believable is Sochocki's miming of such an act); Petey Fisk (the sweetly naïve ambassador of the Tuna Humane Society); siblings Jody, Stanley and Charlene Bumiller; town doyenne Vera Carp (whose totally inappropriate commands to her Mexican housekeeper Lupe are as politically incorrect as they are howlingly funny); the aforementioned Dixie Deberry; Tasty-Crème waitress Helen Bedd (will she ever find the right man?); Farley Burkhalter, a diminutive Tasty-Crème customer; and Garland Poteet (who peddles soda pop and flirts with Inita Goodwin).
Rice, one of Nashville's most versatile actors, who has proven himself an expert on the citizens of Tuna thanks to being cast in multiple productions of Tuna shows over the years (most recently at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre), continues to deliver the comic goods at Fontanel, providing leadership and projecting confidence in the process. As Thurston Wheelis (the role originally taken on by Joe Sears), Rice also plays Elmer Watkins (poor thing, a flame-throwing incident left him without eyebrows); Bertha Bumiller, the big-hearted, big-haired housewife and mother of Jody, Stanley and Charlene, charter member of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order ("Censorship is an American as apple pie, so shut up!" she implores); local business owner and OKKK radio personality Leonard Childers; Didi's better half, R.R. Snavely, who's always on the lookout for UFOs; Bertha's elderly aunt and rabble-rouser Pearl Burrus, who was a real-life (so to speak) Rosie the Riveter up in Houston in WWII; Sheriff "Rubber Sheets" Givens, who'll never outlive the legend of his bedwetting at church camp as a kid; highway worker Ike Thompson; Inita Goodwin of Tasty-Crème fame; and Joe-Bob Lipsey, the fey and foppish director of Tuna's little theater group who's just "not-the-marrying-kind" no matter Charlene Bumiller's unending ardor and fascination with him.
Over the years, the characters have each taken on a comic reputation of legendary proportions and Sochocki and Rice more than do each of them justice with their brilliant delivery and ideally conceived takes on each individual. There's no way you won't have a great time in the audience of A Tuna Christmas, whether you're at Fontanel, the Roxy Regional Theatre or the Gaslight Theatre, so we'd suggest you get your ass in gear and go spend some time in Tuna over the next few days. It's certain to lighten your load, while giving you a whole bellyful of laughs and, perhaps surprisingly, touching your heart.
A Tuna Christmas. By Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Directed by Vance Nichols. Presented by Fontanel Mansion, at the Natchez Hills Winery, 4125 Whites Creek Pike, Nashville. Through December 16. For tickets and other information, call (615) 724-1600, or go to www.Fontanel.com.