A Tuna Christmas

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Back by popular demand after last year’s successful run, Provo Theatre Company’s “A Tuna Christmas” is as funny, silly and poignant now as it was then.

The same two actors — Charles L. Frost and Duane V. Stephens — play 22 different characters, male and female, in the small town of Tuna, Texas, on Christmas Eve. Ed Gryska directs the show again, guiding us through the intersecting lives of 22 of the oddballs, rednecks and just plain folks who inhabit the town.

Last year’s production was so near-perfect, it would have been unwise to tamper much with it. Fortunately, little tampering has taken place. The set is different, and a few lines are changed — references are made to Donny Osmond and his ubiquitous “Technicolor Dreamcrap,” and there’s a sly nod to “Titanic” — but overall, everything is just as I remember it from last year.

Tuna, Texas, is a quirky, strange little town that is just like a thousand towns we know of. The residents, while odd and funny, are nonetheless only about one degree off from our friends and neighbors. People here have names like Garlinda Crump, Farley Burkhalter and Didi Snavely. The town has activities like the Klan-sponsored “Christmas family night and skeet-shoot.” Bertha Bumiller (Stephens) is a sweet, middle-aged housewife whose gentle nature has been taken advantage of by her drunk, philandering husband. Vera Carp (Frost) has won the town’s lawn-decorating contest 14 Christmases in a row, and she’ll be darned if she’s going to lose this one. Aunt Pearl (Stephens) is an old biddy with a limp, but she’s a feisty old gal, killing bluejays with a slingshot and orchestrating some mischief to keep the town on its toes. Didi Snavely (Frost), owner of Didi’s Used Weapons (“If We Can’t Kill It, It’s Immortal”) is a caustic, chain-smoking grouch whose husband is a drunk and whose mother is insane.

I could go on and on. The point is, these characters are REAL. They are necessarily drawn with somewhat broad strokes, but Frost and Stephens play them so realistically that the humor becomes even funnier. Rule One of comedy is that people relate better to — and therefore can laugh more with — real situations and real people. And “Tuna Christmas” follows that rule to a T, with brilliant results.

Not only are the characters real, they’re poignant, even touching. Watch town moron (well, one of them) Petey Fisk (Frost) tell his pet coyote, iguana and sheep about the first Christmas. Watch Aunt Pearl give the hooligan Stanley Bumiller a new life for Christmas. Watch Bertha and local DJ Arles Struvie share some candid moments and eventually slow-dance at the radio station. It’s all funny, but it’s kinda sweet, too.

The laughs are plentiful — I’ve never seen a play with such excellent verbal humor, full of wit, sarcasm and energy — but when the play decides to be a tender, it works fabulously. It’s not forced, nor is it maudlin, trite or syrupy. It’s genuine and wonderful.

Bertha — perhaps the most warm, endearing character in the show — sums it up perfectly when she says: “Sometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying.”

There are a few visual jokes in the show, mostly related to the audience’s initial reaction upon seeing the outlandishly costumed Frost and Stephens, but by and large, the humor is verbal. The characters are snarky and quick-witted, talking about everyone behind their backs. Various people are referred to as being “loopy,” “a slobberin’ hippie,” “brain-dead,” and an “old hornfrog.” Someone “looks like death chewing on a cracker,” and someone else is “an over-heated downhill wreck.” Various senior citizens, we are told, are “older than Egypt,” “older than Alley Oop,” and “older than water.” Upon being frightened, someone “screamed like white trash at a tent meeting.” You get the idea.

Frost and Stephens are perfect in their many roles. They don’t do much to alter their voices from one character to another, but everything else — from costumes to mannerisms to inflection — indicates 22 completely different people. They are so effective, in fact, that it’s a little weird to see only two performers come out for the curtain call at the end. One almost wonders where the other 20 are, expecting them all to be backstage still.

For an evening of smart, riotously funny performances and just enough true “Christmas spirit” to put you in the mood for the holidays, you can do no better than “A Tuna Christmas.” Don’t miss it, because who knows if it’ll be back next year?

I considered simply rerunning my review from last year, since the show was almost exactly the same except for the set, but I decided I might as well earn the money they were paying me.

Such a great show! I can't say enough about it. It's written brilliantly, and I can't imagine anyone performing it better than these two guys.

Alas, Charles Lynn Frost, who had been PTC's artistic director, left after this season and "Tuna Christmas" was not performed there again. A truly tragic loss, for this was a wonderful show that I wouldn't mind seeing every year forever.

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