A Tuna Christmas

It’s hard to believe that a show whose actors spend most of their time dressed in drag could be poignant and touching, but “A Tuna Christmas,” playing at Provo Theatre Company, actually is.

A sequel to the quirky hit “Greater Tuna,” “A Tuna Christmas” tells the stories of a couple dozen residents of Tuna, Texas. All of their lives intersect as they prepare for the big Christmas lawn decoration contest, and the various other activities associated with the holidays. In the middle of all this, we see love, compassion, and real life — all played by a couple guys usually wearing wigs.

See, there are only two actors in “A Tuna Christmas,” specifically Charles L. Frost and Duane V. Stephens. And yet the two of them play 11 characters each, with no assistance. (At one point, when both actors are onstage and there needs to be the sound of a cat meowing, one of them subtly turns his back and makes the noise himself — no camera tricks here, nothing is hidden up the sleeves.)

It would be easy, then, to go for the cheap laughs. Most of the characters are women; the actors are men; instant comedy, right? Wrong. There can never be more than two characters onstage at a time; one of the actors will have to hurry off and come back on only half-dressed as the next character, guaranteeing instant laughs, right? Wrong.

There are a lot of laughs in this show — oh MAN, are there a lot of laughs — but they come, generally, from more sophisticated sources. Every time an actor leaves the stage we know he may come back as someone else, but it never seems forced. There’s never a feeling of, “Oh, they had to write it so that he left then, because this other person has to come on in a second.” Everything flows and seems completely natural and normal. The two men do such a good job, in fact, that when a character disappears backstage and the actor who played him comes on as someone else, we still think the first character is backstage somewhere. The idea of the actors quickly changing costumes in the wings seems foreign, even though we know in the back of our mind that’s what’s happening.

The best comedy, the kind of comedy that actually has depth and substance to it, is based on real characters in real situations. And therein lies the absolute brilliance of this show. When Frost and Stephens put on wigs and costumes to appear as other characters, they BECOME those characters. They actually do surprisingly little to give each of their characters different voices, but everything else completely conveys truth and reality. The way they walk, their tone of voice, their hand gestures — everything is completely convincing, and not just two-dimensionally.

So when Arles Struvie (Frost) asks Bertha Bumiller (Stephens) to dance, there are no snickers, no titterings of, “Hey, look, it’s two guys dancing!” We know that Bertha is being played by a man, but he has done such a marvelous job of painting Bertha as a real character — NOT a caricature drawn with broad strokes, but with real emotions and depth — that we hardly notice it.

The dialogue in the show is snarky and caustic, as characters diss one another and talk behind each other’s backs. In fact, the visual appearance of the characters, while vital in conveying who they are, is largely irrelevant in terms of the comedy. There are few sight gags at all. It’s mostly the dialogue that brings the laughs, and bring the laughs it certainly does.

The play begins almost deceptively, as two radio announcers talk about the latest news in Tuna. As they discuss the contestants in the lawn decorating contest, and all the other bits of gossip, the lines are played for laughs. We see the stereotypes of Texans being played out, and we laugh at what a town of yahoos this must be.

Then, suddenly, the rug is pulled out from under us. We actually begin to MEET the people we’ve just been told about, and learn about their lives. And while they’re very funny, they’re also very real. They’re not just punchlines, like the radio announcer scene would have us believe. They’re actual people, with lives and back stories and subtext. Didi Snavely isn’t just a gun-nut who owns a weapon store; she’s a woman with an alcoholic, dumb husband and a host of other real problems. Aunt Pearl isn’t just a limping old biddy; she’s a sweet, compassionate woman who is just like a thousand other women you know in real life.

In short, while this play deals greatly in stereotypes and silliness, it also conveys a tremendous amount of poignancy and reality. By the end, you feel like you know most of the 22 characters presented, and that they’re not just two-dimensional jokes up on the stage. It’s a rare kind of show: hysterically, bitingly, devastatingly funny and smart, and at the same time moving and substantive. Don’t miss this one.

I knew this play would be funny. What surprised me was how poignant it was, too. It's the kind of writing I hope to be able to do myself some day: hysterically, pants-wettingly funny, and yet with some depth and emotion. I'm sure I'll never write anything this good, though.

This review proved that, ultimately, you cannot please ANYONE in this valley, no matter what you do. On Jan. 10, the Daily Herald printed the following letter:

To the editor:

A glowing review in the Herald read, "'A Tuna Christmas': lots of laughs, none of them cheap." [the headline used in the Herald] What's cheap? We were so embarrassed [when] we went to this show that we left at intermission.

Flashing 'the finger' -- an obscene gesture in anybody's book -- isn't cheap, but it certainly did get the biggest laugh. There were other obscenities in the show as well.

We didn't mind the actors; they were brilliant. What we minded was the emphasis on vulgarity for the sake of comedy. If the reviewer calls this 'real human experience,' it isn't part of the experience we know or enjoy as citizens trying to achieve a cut above this behavior in our own lives.

Wake up, Utah Valley. There are so many wholesome productions that exemplify artistic values in our communities that we don't need to watch this kind of thing, particularly at Christmas.

Walter Brown

I would like to point out first of all that I said the show does not GENERALLY rely on cheap gags to get laughs; the headline, which I did not write, said it NEVER uses them. Sure, there were a few cheap, low-scale laughs in the show. There were even one or two mid-range profanities.

But since Walter Brown of Orem left at intermission, he missed an astounding second act. That's where most of the emotion came in. That's where everything tied together, and where you actually felt some poignancy and depth. Walter Brown missed that because he couldn't stand to see two guys flipping the bird.

"A Tuna Christmas" WAS "wholesome" (Walter Brown's word) and yes, uplifting. I cannot explain it all to you if you haven't seen it, but it was there.

Walter Brown says the play was NOT realistic, like I said it was. If Walter Brown's reality does not EVER contain ANYTHING that is less than ideal and celestial, then I would be curious to know just where Walter Brown is purchasing his reality. Something can be slightly worldly, even slightly crude, and still ultimately convey a good message and uplift the spirit. It's not always a black-and-white, good-or-bad issue. Walter Brown needs to get out more.