Greater Tuna is the first in a series of four of the funniest theater productions ever to see a stage. The story of Texas third tiniest town and its' 20 most interesting residents has been gracing stages non-stop since its debut in Austin in 1981. Creators' Jaston (Pronounced Jay–ston) Williams and Joe Sears who expanded what was a single sketch about a tiny radio station covering news that Williams had seen satirized in a New Yorker cartoon into a full length play originally imagined a three month run for their creation.
Some 35 years later productions of Greater Tuna and its' three sequels have graced stages from coast-to-coast including BroadwayAnd the White House. The brilliance of the Tuna plays' is two-fold. The most obvious is that all 20+ characters have to this point been played by two actors. Through incredible quick change artistry actors casually saunter out of sight behind a set piece only to casually emerge from the other side some 30-45 seconds later in completely different costuming. From young to old, conservative to liberal and even male to female, the brilliance found in all the tuna plays is the casualness with which they make such dramatic changes literally in seconds. Changes that are not just costuming, they are changing who they are, who they are playing in a matter of seconds.
Sears and Williams announced their retirement from the Tuna series over a year ago. There was never any fear that the plays would die without Sears and Williams as the entire series are favorites for community and regional theaters all over the country.
Ryan Bailey as Arles Struvie and Will Mercer as Thurston Wheelis in Greater Tuna. (Photo- AxelB Photography)
Williams vision of a grander version, a version that would be seen as more a play than an act has lead to the current tour of a rebooted version of the play that started it all more than thirty five years ago. The original vision is intact with Williams at the helm of (but not appearing in) the new production and it's more than twenty city tour.
In this reboot the 20 plus characters are played by three actors instead of two. One of those taking on Williams' reimagined production is Texas' native Will Mercer. He has spent most of his life in Corporate America but his love and desire to be involved in theater has burned within Mercer as long as he can remember.
I caught up with Mercer by as he rode on the “Greater Tuna” tour bus heading to perform in Abilene. Interestingly Mercer's first experience with live theater was as an audience member in an early production of “Greater Tuna” in Austin. “Greater Tuna is the first live theater I saw. I saw it at the Paramount Theater in Austin in 1985 and I instantly fell in love with the piece.”
A great desire to be involved in an Austin area community production of Del Shores' “Sordid Lives” caught Mercer's attention and his husbands' support and encouragement led to his auditioning and winning of the role of Wardell, the straight bar owner. Mercer in his early 40's for the first time was in a place where he could fully dive into his long-term dream of being in the theater but on the stage not in the audience.
Will Mercer as Aunt Pearl Burrras, Tim Leavon as Vera Carp and Ryan Bailey as Didi Snavely in Greater Tuna. (Photo- AxelB Photography)
The role in “Sordid Lives” led to Mercer joining the cast of two in an Austin community theater production of “A Tuna Christmas.” For this role Mercer won Broadway World's Best Actor in a Comedy Award. It was Mercer's performance in Greater Tuna as a two man show that caught Tuna creater Williams attention and led to the two meeting. “It was a dream come true. I did A Tuna Christmas and Jaston saw that and one conversation led to another and then to the audition process and here I am about to be forty eight years old embarking on a whole new career and I didn't think it would ever happen.”
The reboot helmed by Williams makes one major change to the show that we have loved for some thirty-five years. The cast of two grows to three and there is a new character along with rewrites to keep the show fresh. The thing that I have always loved about the Tuna plays is their biting satire and it's ability to entertain and make laugh every member of the audience whether they know someone like the characters in the play or they are the charters in the play. It's brilliance is that it can entertain without offending the very people the characters' satirize.
Tim Leavon as Charlene Bumiller and Will Mercer as Bertha Bumiller in Greater Tuna. (Photo- AxelB Photography)
Remaking, reimagining, rebooting all are dangerous propositions for a beloved piece. Take the recent Remake of “Beach's” the cult classic starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. The Lifetime remake brilliantly cast Gay Icon Idina Menzel, is there a better alternative to Midler? Unfortunately, Lifetimes effort proved that “Beach's” was a classic that not only didn't need an update, it proved impossible to even make an equivalent production. Even Menzel could not save this doomed project. The LA Times said the remake was so bad it ruined the original. That takes some effort.
I ask why the reboot and how they balance the updating of the show while being sure not to alienate the die hard fans that have loved and followed the show for so many years. Mercer said there is no need for fear. All your favorites are here, there are slight tweaks to the script to include some fresh references (read: Trump), but the reboot is true to the original and unlike the Beach's remake “Greater Tuna” will delight the die hard fans with a visit to see all the residents they know and love, while earning new fans who have not had the privilege of experiencing the zany residents of Texas third smallest town.
Greater Tuna Plays Bass Hall Wednesday & Thursday March 29th & 30th. Tickets at http://www.basshall.com/ Tickets at Bass are $44.-$99. Other tour dates and tickets are available at http://www.tunatouring.com/
No matter where you are in your head when you walk in, bad day, bad mood, great day or somewhere in between The Tuna plays are laugh out loud funny shows, that are at the top of any funniest play ever list. I have spoken with Jaston Williams at length on multiple occasions and one thing I know is that he takes his art very seriously and is a perfectionist. All this put together guarantees that if you miss this new production of an old favorite you are doing yourself a disservice.
Please login or register to add comments