Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of A Tuna Christmas at Walnut Street's Studio 3

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-10-2008:

To borrow a line from comedian Jeff Foxworthy: You know you’re a redneck if you’re hanging Christmas ornaments made from coffee filters and empty toilet paper rolls. Either that, or you’re appearing in Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams’ A Tuna Christmas, now in production at the Walnut Street’s Studio Three.

After the Walnut Street’s successful production last year of the same authors’ Greater Tuna, director Madi Distefano recast John Zak and Benjamin Lloyd to play another 30 (or so) characters in Tuna, Texas, "the third smallest town in the state." A Tuna Christmas follows the struggles and foibles of the town’s backward residents during the Holiday season as they compete for the annual Christmas Yard Display Contest. For the last 15 years, the wealthy Vera Carp has won, and this year she’s hired Mexican immigrants to tend to the live animals in her holiday diorama.

If only they could fend off the "Christmas Phantom," a mysterious prankster who wrecks the lawn displays while causing the neighbors to accuse each other of perpetrating the mischief. Meanwhile, the town’s eccentric, "non-marrying type" (wink, wink) director Joe Bob Lipsey struggles to put on a production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol because an overzealous public utilities worker threatens to shut off the power unless he pays the theatre’s electric bill.

Distefano contemporizes the script’s humor with updates about the Walnut Street’s current production of Hairspray, Sarah Palin (of course), and a Christmas tree decorated to look like Dick Cheney "shot it in the face." The remaining jokes-and there’s plenty-mostly target the backwardness of life in the Deep South.

The play starts and ends at Radio OKKK, where advertisements for the local used-weapons store announce "if we can’t kill it, it’s immortal," and residents call to announce meetings of the anti-pornography group "Smut Snatchers." Local high-school girls wear the hot-selling perfume "Compromise," and townspeople threaten Tuna’s lone liberal citizen," by telling him that they "shoot vegetarians on sight." So much for being done with rednecks from Texas.

A Tuna Christmas affectionately satirizes Southern life, and any theatergoer will delight hearing Lipsey complain about his "all-white" production of "A Raisin in the Sun," or celebrate his innovative recasting of the Greek tragedy "Medea" into a Confederate triumph. And those who love well-crafted performances will find much to enjoy in Zak and Lloyd’s superb performances.

The pair run on and off the stage, and with little more than a wig and costume change, manage to seamlessly and hilariously inhabit an entire town’s worth of characters. Zak’s radio announcer sports a Roy Orbison bouffant, and Lloyd, tucked inside a "fat suit," is possibly the nastiest looking housewife in Texas-or anywhere. And the choice for Zak to play the town’s lone liberal as mentally challenged shows a subtle and interesting commentary on the South’s perverted understanding of Blue-State values.

Costume designer Alisa Sikora-Kleckner finds endless variations on the theme of "Wal-Mart chic," contrasting John Deere pajamas with a one-piece satin jumper that makes even the town’s wealthy resident look like white trash. Meghan Jones’ adorns her functional set with ratty props (including a mounted Jackalope!), Shon Causer’s lighting helps sharpen the rough transitions in locales, and Christopher Colucci’s vivid sound design paints in the backdrop of southern life.

However, even the design team’s potent atmosphere can’t ward off the dead moments in the production. Distefano tries to enliven these with rock music and dancing or pesky grandmothers firing slingshots at birds, but the overkill of jokes means that some of the script will just not sound funny. Too many ancillary characters complicate the plot without adding a compensating humor for the distraction, and while I enjoyed Zak and Lloyd’s versatility, the final moments spent reminiscing left me bored.

Howard, Sears, and Williams have written a third installment to their Tuna series. Despite the changes in Washington, chances are Philadelphia audiences will get to laugh at rednecks from Texas for at least one more year.

The Independence Studio on Three at the Walnut Street Theatre presents A Tuna Christmas until Jan. 4. Tickets and more information available at:

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