New actors freshen up old fave, Greater Tuna; no bite in Kitchen Dog’s contest winner

Seeing Greater Tuna performed by two actors other than Joe Sears and Jaston Williams is like going to a concert knowing it's a cover band. Even with reasonable facsimiles on the stage, you're a little let down at not getting the real thing.

Until the current production at Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre, I'd never seen anyone but Austin actors Sears and Williams in Greater Tuna, a two-actor, multi-character comedy about the oddball citizens of the "third smallest town in Texas." Tuna is a speck on the map, a place where the winning high school essay is "The Other Side of Bigotry" and the ladies over at Coweta "Bab-tist" Church are active in a censorship campaign called the Smut Snatchers of the New Order. And there just might be a UFO hovering over the duck pond.

Sears and Williams created the show with director Ed Howard in a small Austin playhouse in 1981 and have been performing it hither and yonder, plus its three sequels, ever since. In July they'll be at Richardson's Eisemann Center with their latest chapter, Tuna Does Vegas.

I've reviewed Greater Tuna and its offspring at least 10 times, starting with the New York debut of the first play at off-Broadway's Circle in the Square in 1982 (anyone with a Texas driver's license got in for five bucks, as I recall). It always tickles me to pieces to watch the magical dexterity with which Sears, the big one, and Williams, the skinny one, slip in and out of the costumes, voices and behavioral tics of Tuna's 20 characters. One minute Williams is Charlene Bumiller, a sullen teenager in pigtails, whining at her mama about not making cheerleader, and in a blink the actor is back as croaky Didi Snavely, the chain-smoking old crow from Tuna's used firearms emporium (motto: "If we can't kill it, it's immortal"). With brain-boggling speed, Sears quick-changes from poodle-poisoning Aunt Pearl Burras into cliché-spouting Reverend Spikes and bacon-frying Bertha Bumiller, each one fully drawn, with different vocal qualities and physical silhouettes.

With the always perfectly pitched performances of Tuna's original partners deeply imprinted in my memory, I was a little afraid to see another pair of actors attempt the Greater Tuna two-step. But Flower Mound's cast, Ryan Roach and Chris Robinson, are a couple of pros with credits at theaters all around Dallas. They're comedy character types, so they're good choices for a play that requires heavy drawls and lots of drag.

And boy hidee, do these boys go to town with their Tuna. They've taken to it with an attitude that respects the originators, but doesn't try to copy them. Directing themselves, Roach and Robinson have restaged the show to fit them, shaking up the rhythms unique to Sears and Williams, slowing it down here and speeding it up there. Starting with the opening scene of the morning sign-on "Wheelis/Struvie Report" at Tuna's 275-watt radio station OKKK, the actors ease into the git-down sing-songy poetry of the West Texas-tinged dialogue. They DO, they do, they do.

They've also brought the show down to the right proportions. One thing success did for Greater Tuna—besides make its creators millionaires—was to blow it up larger than life-size. I've seen the show done in an opera house (sold out, by the way), a venue that forces the acting to go a whole lot broader than it needs to be. The Flower Mound theater, with the square footage of a nice walk-in closet (only a slight exaggeration), showcases the subtleties of the play and the smallest moves by the actors. Now when Aunt Pearl (Roach) curses the corpse of the mean judge who sent her favorite nephew (Robinson) to reform school for spray-painting stop signs, the actor can do it under his breath instead of shouting it to the rafters.

Proximity does make the flaws in the Flower Mound production more evident, too. The moustaches the guys wear for various characters look like they were cut out of black contact paper and the pantomimed action isn't as precise as it could be. Lights and set might have cost a little more than lunch at the Tastee-Kreme, but not much. Costumes and wigs by Ryan Matthieu Smith are just OK. But the technical stumbles are minor in a production whose actors really understand the finer points of Greater Tuna and how to play them. Watching Roach and Robinson pause in character while the audience was convulsed in laughter made me realize how great this piece of American theater is, even when Sears and Williams aren't in it. It IS, it is, it is.

Out of the hundreds of scripts Kitchen Dog Theater received as submissions to its annual new play contest came Seattle writer Yussef El Guindi's one-act comedy Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. It's on view now at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary as the winner of the competition, which launches the play into a rolling series of premieres across the country as part of the National New Play Network.

The set-up of Jihad Jones is pretty tight. Handsome but unknown Arab-American actor Ashraf (played by handsome Ethan Rains, brought in from L.A.) has a shot at his first million-dollar paycheck for co-starring in an action movie directed by Hollywood's hottest filmmaker (Christopher Carlos) and starring a Jessica Biel-like sexpot (Leah Spillman). The catch: The character he'd be playing is a crazed Muslim terrorist, shouting to Allah as he threatens to blow up a Jesus-loving American family on Thanksgiving.

In the office of an Ari Gold-like agent (Michael Federico), Ashraf agonizes. He can't seem to get anyone, much less his greedy agent, to understand why he'd hesitate to play a Middle Eastern villain. The dance of seduction begins. Can Ashraf be convinced to swallow his principles and take the role? The director even has him do an impromptu screen test with the their underwear.

Jihad Jones is a funny play with a sharp, if obvious, POV. El Guindi, an up-and-comer in regional theater, was born in Egypt and became an American citizen in the 1990s. Through Ashraf, he goes after the distorted images of Arabs in Hollywood. "Why am I the only one who sees this?" Ashraf says, waving the script at the agent and director. "The pages groan with it. There are enough stereotypes here to create a whole new cartoon network."

El Guindi's play is a winner, but KDT isn't rewarding it with a winning production. Lead actor Rains, who has the face and six-pack abs to be a real movie star, gets the tone right, but everyone else in the production directed by Tina Parker veers off into vaudeville. Federico goes Costanza-like, throwing himself across the desk and letting his pants drop to his ankles. Lulu Ward turns the starstruck secretary into a blithering idiot. Spillman, KDT's go-to pretty girl, wouldn't be a believably sexy teenager if she were filmed through Doris Day gauze. She's too old and too brittle to play anyone's idea of a bombshell.

No contest, this take on Jihad Jones just doesn't translate from the page to the stage.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner