The 1982 off-Broadway hit “Greater Tuna” is designed as a quick-change farce for two actors playing 22 roles of all ages and both sexes, but the production currently playing at Mosley Street Melodrama is more laid-back.
As directed by JR Hurst, the show sacrifices a bit of the gee-whiz technical aspects of slipping in and out of numerous costumes quickly in favor of concentrating on the down-home characterizations themselves. The show is populated by the quirky denizens of “the third smallest town in Texas,” and it presents an affectionate, if sometimes withering, satirical look at small-town life, mores, politics, feuds and secrets.
Taking 11 characters each are Dan E. Campbell, a local actor who carved out a successful career on both coasts in stage, TV, movies and commercials for three decades before moving back this year, and longtime local favorite Scott Noah, co-founder of Mosley Street Melodrama. Their anchor characters are Arles and Thurston, two smug DJs on local Radio OKKK, who discuss all the gossipy goings on live on air – when they can remember to turn the microphone on.
Campbell, who has performed “Tuna” and a couple of its sequels numerous times in other venues, brings charming folksiness as well as satirical bite to such characters as a loving but constantly nagging mom trying to cope with three problem kids, a crotchety old lady with a vendetta against egg-sucking dogs (and a secret love life), and an anti-porn crusading preacher who never met a cliche he didn’t like (and overuse hilariously).
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Noah, whose own Velvetina character has become a beloved legend at Mosley, has a great deal of fun playing such folks as the tender-hearted head of the local dog shelter, a no-nonsense woman who runs a Used Gun Shop where everything is “guaranteed to kill,” and the vice president of the local Smut Snatchers, who is campaigning to remove objectionable words from the school dictionary and is relieved that one word in their own group title survived the kill list. Noah has perfected the Southern Belle simp whose every smiling word drips with venom.
For both actors, the vocal differences between characters aren’t great, but their gestures and attitudes – plus obvious costumes – make them distinct individuals.
The show was written and originally performed by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard about their own down-home roots, and it has countless laugh-out-loud lines, references and “values,” from the BBB (Better Baptist Bureau) to an award-winning school essay on “The Other Side of Civil Rights” to the cash-strapped community theater recycling the “South Pacific” costumes for “My Fair Lady” by setting it in Polynesia, to a revered local judge being found dead in a woman’s bathing suit.
It’s supremely ridiculous stuff for laughs, but it resonates because of the underlying truths about human nature. For every petty, holier-than-thou, hypocritical action, there’s an innocent, generous, warm-hearted reaction.
One odd aspect of this production is that while the actors have detailed costumes and wigs (by Patty Reeder and Jana Reeder) to help create their characters, they use almost no props. The actors pantomime using dishes, tools, phones, cars, etc., and interact with an invisible pack of dogs as well as view an invisible casket. It’s a choice that seems to work against the realism of the costumes.