The incredibly entertaining “A Tuna Christmas” begins a ten day run at Fort Worth's Casa Manana this week. The Tuna series of plays are the most produced in the U.S. and if you have ever seen one you know why. But this production comes with a little something extra, it stars the series creators and writers Joe Sears and Jaston (Jay-ston) Williams.I saw Joan Rivers last week, and while, she was shocking and hysterical, I can tell you from experience I will laugh more and harder at “A Tuna Christmas”.
The Tuna plays have been making audiences laugh for nearly thirty years, but interestingly it all started with a political cartoon. “It was the Reagan years and Alexander Haig was Secretary of State and he talked about how America would support an authoritarian government, but not a totalitarian government.” Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist for the Austin American Statesman Ben Sargent used his space in the paper to comment. “It showed Alexander Haig pointing at the same policeman beating the same demonstrator and saying 'note the difference?'
We had to entertain at this party so we created this little radio station. Joe was the manager and the DJ. I was the guy from the State Department who was showing him the difference in two political theories. He beat the hell out of me twice. It was classic vaudeville.” The pair would take that skit back to the theater they were working in at the time. “We were in a professional theater in Austin in the early eighties that was pushing the envelope with Gay and Lesbian issues and comedy.”
At the theater the skit was expanded to include more characters. “We created a couple more characters that came in during commercial breaks. It was then Williams had a realization. I told Joe there is a play in here.” It was the demise of the theater they had been performing in that brought them together to create something to keep them working. “The theater went under and the next day Joe and I and Ed (creator and long time director Ed Howard) got together and started writing.
The three rented the theater they had been performing in and for the first time performed “Greater Tuna”. Success was fast and big. “I had no idea it was going to catch on like it did, we were just three unemployed actors trying to make something happen.” Happen it did. They have been performing the play non stop for nearly thirty years.
In the first months of the run their break would come. “There were a couple of New York critics in Austin, one for Variety and one for the New York Post. They happened to see the show. They went back to New York, made some phone calls and in about three weeks we were being represented by The William Morris Agency.”
The show is unique because Williams and Sears play all twenty characters, men and women, young and old. Their off stage changes are lighting fast, some in as fast as eight seconds, one of the pair onstage at all times. Each actor completes dozens of costume and character changes in the course of the evening and this is what takes this play to the next level. The script is interesting, funny and engaging, but half the fun is watching these two leave, transform and re-enter in mere seconds.
The brilliance of the Tuna plays, and they are brilliant, is that at once these characters are loveable and endearing, while at the same time backwards, bigoted, right wing nuts. The long life of these plays in large part due to its' razor sharp satire. “We have a political opinion and we express them through these characters.”
Those of us who live here know Texas is rife with material. “You don't have to make anything up, it's just there. Like that fine Christian mother who would drag you out of church and beat you in the parking lot. The beatings in church were just hell!”
The original show has played Broadway multiple times, The White House Twice, and garnered numerous awards for the pair. The success of the show has led to three sequels, “A Tuna Christmas,” “Red, White & Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas”. As the holidays approach it is only natural they would roll out “A Tuna Christmas” for a tour.
A Tuna Christmas finds the residents of Texas' third smallest town dealing with all the stresses that come with the Holiday Season, and then some. “There is a production of A Christmas Carol at the local community theater, but they haven't paid their electric bill and the old right wing city secretary has one hand on the switch.” This is classic Tuna. “And there is the Christmas yard display contest, which Vera (Carp) has won fourteen years in a row and that's really cut throat and nasty.”
If you only make one trip to a theater this year, this is the one you should not miss. I promise you will leave Casa Manana literally aching from the uncontrollable laughter.
A Tuna Christmas plays Fort Worth's Casa Manana Theater from Thursday, November 10 through Sunday, November 20th. Tickets are $47.-$67. and are available through Ticketmaster. More info at http://casamanana.org/
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