Presented by Not Another Theater Company
Location The Locker Room, 528 Hiawatha Blvd, Syracuse
When Nov. 11-19
Tickets $27.50 for dinner & show, $20 for show
Word about town: The Post-Standard
GRR Review By Chris Baker
Everything is bigger in Texas. It is, it is.
Everything is bigger in Texas, except the town of Tuna.
A skeleton stage, crew and cast set the tone for Not Another Theater Company’s performance of “A Tuna Christmas,” the 1989 follow-up to the 1981 show “Greater Tuna.” The play opens on December 24 in the fictional one-horse town of Tuna, TX, an overdone amalgamation of hammed-up caricatures and worn stereotypes about the Lone Star State.
Rednecks, Klan members, halfwits and gun-nuts spend the majority of the play preparing for a Christmas shrouded in petty competition, moral superiority and simple-mindedness. Rick Perry would be proud.
In the wake of Dubya’s presidency, however, jokes about Texas just seem tired and outdated. Perhaps "South Park" and "The Daily Show" have spoiled it for me, but homophobia and conservatism in small town America seem to be yesterday’s news. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to poking fun at fence-builders and school board Creationists, but even I find the narrative in “A Tuna Christmas” to be overkill.
The two-hander features Greg Hipius and Gerrit Vander Werff Jr. who take on nearly a dozen roles each, including a paroled jailbird, worried mother, local drunk, stammering fool, a pair of little old ladies and a theater director with an eye for the fellas.
Hipius and Vander Werff craft an entire town of characters who squabble over yard decorations and speculate about the identity of the Christmas Phantom, the notorious prankster who remains at large. Rapid costume changes and varied accents build the ensemble of characters, but the timing is often a beat too slow to really make the whole thing work.
Hipius is particularly convincing as the self-pitying protagonist Bertha Bumiller. He is, he is. The plain-Jane housewife manages to remain festive despite a deadbeat husband, screw-up son and self-righteous neighbor, Vera Carp – played by Vander Werff.
Vander Werff showcases impressive range and, like Hipius, gives his best performance in a dress and wig. In addition to Ms. Carp (and many others), he plays Didi Snavely, the crass, demanding owner of a used weapons depot who has a useless slob of a husband (apparently a tongue-in-cheek theme in the two-man show).
The two men produce some uproarious laughs onstage, particularly as the gossipy old ladies Pearl (Hipius) and Dixie (Vander Werff). More often than not, however botched lines and miscues disrupt comedic timing during the dress rehearsal performance Wednesday night. While Vander Werff Jr. carefully crafts each character, he struggles to spit out line after line of the quick-tongued dialogue. Hipius’ lines are a bit more polished, but still lack the crisp delivery necessary for the play to really work.
Rather than the non-stop laugh machine the writers presumably intended, the show’s wit is hit-or-miss. Too many jokes fall flat following a flubbed word or two. Hipius and Vander Werff hit their stride during scenes with rapid costume changes, but often struggle with prolonged pieces of dialogue.
The final scene’s abrupt ending left me expecting some sort of epilogue. Rather than holding my breath, however, I found myself checking my watch. The conclusion may have been unsatisfying, but I was just glad it was over. I was, I was.