APT finds the heart in hilarity

APT finds the heart in hilarity



A critic once called “A Tuna Christmas” a kind of southern “Prairie Home Companion.” It is just as funny as its prequel by Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, “Greater Tuna,” which debuted in Texas in 1982. But it’s also a little bit less bitingly satirical — perhaps because there’s a good dollop of holiday spirit stirred in.

That doesn’t mean audiences at Arkansas Public Theatre won’t run in to many of the same characters they know and love — or know and shake their heads at — starting with Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie. Portrayed this time by Chad Cox (Wheelis) and Tanner Pittman (Struvie), they are still the ringmasters as radio personalities at station OKKK — and the flask-toting, toothpick-chewing small-town celebrities you’d expect in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. The big news in Tuna is the weather, the hog futures and the controversy over the gaudy Nativity that includes not just the Holy Family illuminated from inside their plastic bodies but also Santa Claus and Bing Crosby.

What anyone new to the “Tuna” comedies might not know is that each of the actors goes on to play 11 different characters — yes, 11 — that exist thanks to their skill and some amazing costume and hair changes. It’s no surprise that that challenge drew both Pittman and Cox to the roles.

“I’ve had this show circled since the season was announced,” says Cox. “Sweetness and silliness abound, with witty lines coming at you from every angle. What’s not to love?”

Cox knew what he was getting himself in to.

“One of the first shows I did in college was ‘Greater Tuna,’” he explains. “I wasn’t in the cast, but I vividly remember how many of us it took to make everything run smoothly backstage. The costume changes are a show in themselves.”

Pittman, on the other hand, had never seen or heard of the show before auditions were announced, but he was excited by the chance to play characters that range from a 6-year-old boy to an 80-plus woman. In addition to Struvie, he’s chain-smoking gun shop owner Didi Snavely, who promises “if we cain’t kill it, it’s immortal”; Petey Fisk, the only member of the Greater Tuna Humane Society; drama queen Charlene Bumiller; her brother Stanley, a troubled youth with a taxidermy license; Vera Carp, whose family has won the holiday yard contest for 14 years in a row — and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon; and Helen Bedd, a waitress at the Tastee Kreme.

Opposite Pittman at every turn is Cox, portraying redneck Elmer Watkins; hopeful but down-trodden mother Bertha Bumiller; Didi’s husband, R.R., a harmless drunk who sees UFOs; Aunt Pearl Burras, “sweet, ornery and determined”; and Inita Goodwin, also a waitress at the Tastee Kreme — and both Inita and Helen have costumes and hair to die for!

The show also taps into the emotions of director Joseph Farmer: One of the “Tuna” comedies was among the first productions he saw at Arkansas Public Theatre, he says, and he has “a soft spot for Petey.” Besides, he adds, “rehearsals have been so much fun watching these two talented actors create these characters.”

Of course there’s a Christmas message in the comedy, he adds. “Tuna is a community that embraces family.”

“I think, especially as a kid, I often took for granted the meaning of Christmas,” Pittman weighs in. “And I have several characters that are just too busy with their own lives to remember that Christmas is about the spirit of giving and being with family.”

“Petey makes a great speech that is reminiscent of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ but it also highlights the different ways families can celebrate the season,” Cox concludes. “Also, a little Christmas magic can happen even in the unlikeliest places.”



‘A Tuna Christmas’

WHEN — 8 p.m. Dec. 13-14; 2 p.m. Dec. 15; again Dec. 19-22

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST — $30-$36

INFO — 631-8988 or arkansaspublictheatre.org

Categories: Theater