Sleepin’ with the fishes

Small-town Texas humor isn’t enough to carry the Actory’s A Tuna Christmas

Layne LaVanway (left) and Paul Kiser as two of the 22 characters they play in <i>A Tuna Christmas</i>.

Layne LaVanway (left) and Paul Kiser as two of the 22 characters they play in A Tuna Christmas.

Rated 2.0

“There may not be snow in San Antonio, but it’s a Texas Christmas to me.”

I heard these countrified lyrics while waiting for the Actory Theatre Arts Centre’s production of A Tuna Christmas to begin. What a coincidence, I thought. This Christmas, I’ll be dragging the fiancé to San Antonio to meet the extended family—and give him one last chance to back out when he sees what he’s getting into.

About 20 minutes into the play, I wished I could back out, too—or better yet, kidnap the cast and crew and take them all out for coffee, injecting a bit more energy into a mostly lackluster production.

A Tuna Christmas is a sequel to Greater Tuna, written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. What started as a short sketch lampooning the conservative Moral Majority movement soon became a full-length play and a touring success, getting good reviews in the Washington Post and Variety magazine.

Instead of using a full cast, though, Sears and Williams portrayed all 20-plus characters, relying on split-second costume changes and a bevy of accents and mannerisms to convey each personality. Reviewers often remarked that the play’s characterization worked better than its dialogue.

In the Actory’s production, Paul Kiser and Layne LaVanway take on this extremely demanding task. While I applaud their bravery, I think they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

For starters, there’s a big difference between a West Texas accent and the one Tom Hanks used in Forrest Gump. LaVanway sounded like a fast-talking drunk guy trying to imitate a Southern accent, and I only caught every other word amidst all the slurring and drawling. Kiser pronounced his words more clearly, but the accent wasn’t remotely authentic.

The costumes were decent—no one in Tuna is supposed to have any fashion sense, anyway—but those split-second costume changes were often more like split-minute. When this happened, one of the actors would end up putzing around on stage trying to discretely fill time. In lieu of props, the actors pantomime everyday actions such as drinking punch or decorating Christmas cookies. This was alternately boring or confusing, especially when it was obviously being used to fill time.

In one scene, a character played by Kiser boards a UFO. A small ramp shoots out from the wall and fog swirls around his legs, accompanied by flashing colored lights and spacey sound effects. It would have been cleverly done if the stagehand had not been clearly visible, struggling to open a section of the wall and let Kiser through.

My only genuinely hearty laugh of the evening involved the same character and a Christmas ornament, so I won’t spoil it with details.

I got the impression that the Actory relied too much on the strength of the dialogue to carry the play, and many other aspects of the production faltered. Ironically, this is exactly opposite of the criticism the authors of A Tuna Christmas received when they toured, and I think I know why.

Small-town Texas humor is kind of like visiting a dysfunctional family for the holidays. The weirdness and cattiness of it is fun at first, but after a while, you’re ready to stuff a candy cane where the sun don’t shine.