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Theater review: Comedic character overload in ‘A Tuna Christmas’ at Millabo Art Theatre

By Tracy Mobley-Martinez

Published in The Gazette: Dec. 18, 2015

See it online by clicking here

In Tuna, the third smallest city in Texas, living is far from easy – even in the 24 hours before Christmas.

Bertha Bumiller decorates the tree by herself, again – her kids and philandering husband who knows where. Director Joe Bob Lipsey’s “A Christmas Carol” may never see opening night if Tuna Electricity turns off their lights for missed payments. R.R. Snavely sees aliens. The Smut Snatchers of the New Order are determined to find (and excise) the dirty words in Christmas carols. And Vera Carp will do just about anything to hold on to the trophy for the annual yard decorating contest, although the mysterious Christmas Phantom may have other ideas.

That’s just a thimbleful of the 24 quirky characters and situations in Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams’ “A Tuna Christmas,” the second in their series of four plays about this fictional town. It runs through Dec. 27.

And every single character is played by either Sammy Gleason or Sammie Joe Kinnett. Think about that for a minute. Every one.

If you’re familiar with the work of these two comic masters, then you’ll know that fast-paced WYNOT Radio Theatre has prepared them well for such a mind-boggling feat. That and their extraordinary sense of timing, tone, color and detail when it comes to quickly building a character. I’m sure director Joye Levy had a hand in it as well.

Happily, this is a work designed to showcase those skills, often over creating a coherent narrative through line. On opening night, the pair sometimes fumbled a line, one of the oddball names or dealt with wardrobe malfunctions. But as first-class improvisers, they made it funny, sometimes drawing the biggest laughs of the show.

Their speed is the biggest obstacle. The exacting but lightning fast delivery so well honed in WYNOT, which parodies Golden Age radio in original stories with a noir bass line, isn’t nailed down in “A Tuna Christmas.” Names were sometimes slurred in the rush to get to the next line.

The first-night audience was particularly tickled by Gleason and Kinnett in drag or full vaudevillian caricature. I was more interested in the characters – the more human the better – they created, with or without heels.

Gleason’s Petey Fisk, a beleaguered employee of the local humane society, is delicately executed with distinctive detail. His Helen Bedd, a buxom Tasty Creme waitress, and Arles Struvie, radio DJ at OKKK, couldn’t have been more different than Petey or another of the other characters, but Gleason made them all unique.

Kinnett is just as adept. The dots were all connected in Bertha, a figure of pathos and cockeyed hope. Same with his Pearl Burras, who has it in for blue jays, and R.R. Snavely. All rounded and so human.

Still, Howard, Sears and Williams’ little bon was too long by a couple of scenes and characters. Helen’s plight at the Tasty Creme and R.R.’s alien sighting, for instance, don’t do much to forward the story, and like a few other vignettes, did a lot for character overload. But maybe that’s sort of the point. The narrative is really just an excuse for the characters, and like a Cirque du Soleil high wire act, what’s one more opportunity to see the actors do the impossible?

Author: Jim Jackson