Hick Shtick

Beck Center's Tuna rolls out the regurgitated rubes.

Greater Tuna Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood Through December 17; 216-521-2540
Kevin Joseph Kelly's Pearl is one of Tuna's surprises.
Kevin Joseph Kelly's Pearl is one of Tuna's surprises.
Say what you will about the decline of America, but there's still no better country in the world for poking fun at rural hicks.

More than 20 years ago, the trio of Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard decided to make a buck off rube-roasting with Greater Tuna, a slapped-together montage of scenes involving various lip-movers and bottom-feeders from the tiny fictional backwater of Tuna, Texas. Beck Center is reviving this show, with the same two-person cast that presented it some six seasons ago. And while the actors perform with energy and goofy diligence, it's apparent that the comedic half-life of this material is getting a bit short.

Structured limply around Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, two yahoos who yell into the microphones at the local radio station (call letters: OKKK), the show cuts away to introduce the various short-bus denizens of Tuna. These include hefty Bertha Bumiller, with her teased-up tower of red hair and three kids, who have evidently chewed all the lead paint off the woodwork and are thus a couple blocks behind the parade. Bertha is the chairperson of the Fewer Blacks in Literature committee, and stands foursquare for banning books such as Roots ("It shows only one side of slavery") and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet ("It encourages teen sex").

This basic character profile is repeated over and over, with just the slightest twists, to create Didi Snavely (cigarette-chomping owner of a used-weapons store); her husband R.R., who's busy chasing UFOs that look like flying fajitas; Pearl Burras, who tosses strychnine-laced biscuit balls to neighborhood dogs; and a Pat Robertson-like Reverend Spikes. In terms of comedic degree of difficulty, this isn't shooting fish in a barrel -- it's more like strapping a helpless carp to the business end of an AK-47 and just blasting away for two hours.

Which is not to say there aren't some laughs to be had. Kevin Joseph Kelly is a hulking mass of ignorant certainty as Bertha, slapping her delinquent son Stanley upside the head and barely tolerating the pouting of daughter Charlene, who's missed being a cheerleader at her high school for seven years running. Kelly is also scarily amusing as Pearl, both when she's poisoning poodles and cackling over the open casket of a judge who was found dead and wearing a Dale Evans swimsuit, complete with fringe.

Nicholas Koesters chimes in with a devilishly snarky Didi (her story about her elderly mom getting stuck in sorghum syrup on her porch, after a nasty Halloween prank, is a hoot) along with a completely Doppler-challenged local weatherman. But perhaps Koesters' best bit is Petey Fisk, the good-hearted doofus who runs the local humane society and keeps trying to place irritating mutts into loving homes. This is one of the few characters who deserves any sympathy from the audience, and it's a pleasant respite from the avalanche of contrived eccentricity embodied in the rest of this hootenanny of half-wits.

A large part of the entertainment value of Tuna is in the constant costume changes and cross-dressing, as the two performers switch in and out of clothes backstage at breakneck speed. But as diverting as that can be, some aspects of the piece don't seem to be aging gracefully. Perhaps the quirks of small-town louts are less hilarious in direct proportion to the actual success such knuckle-draggers have in implementing their dunderheaded ideas. Until recently, Kansas was teaching both evolution and "creation science" in school -- an idea that would have seemed hilariously impossible when this script was written.

Other problems involve the show's repetitive bits (it's cute the first time the DJs mirror each other's lines -- "He did?" "He did!" -- but less so the 20th time) and the lack of any character development whatsoever. Plus, as good as the two actors are, there are some roles that aren't mined for all their comic potential, such as a rather dull radio talk-show host and a fashion-conscious matron. Director Scott Spence probably could have pushed his talented performers a little harder to come up with stronger hooks for these Tuna-ites who are walking up the down escalator of life.

Or perhaps time has finally caught up with the Tuna franchise (there are also spin-off shows: A Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna). We are now in the Age of Borat, when the art of humiliating average folks has been ratcheted up far beyond the gentle prodding in this piece. But for those who like their humor broad, predictable, unchallenging, and easy to digest, Tuna is still your dish.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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