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Napa Valley, California - Greater Tuna Review by Jef Holbrook

Greater Tuna Spoofs Small-Town America

By L. Pierce Carson, The Napa Valley Register

A simple party skit nearly three decades ago blossomed into a critically acclaimed comedy that’s been staged in theaters all over the world — even a command performance at the White House.“Greater Tuna” is a delightfully devilish satire on life in rural America created by Oklahoma natives Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard, who also served as its original director.

Two actors play more than two dozen characters — including men, women, children and animals — who inhabit Tuna, “the third smallest town in Texas,” where the Lions Club is far too liberal and Patsy Cline hits are heard nonstop on radio station OKKK. The two-act, two-hour comedy begins with a radio report on the death of Judge Roscoe Buckner from an apparent stroke while wearing a 1950 turquoise Dale Evans one-piece swimsuit with “lots of cowgirl fringe,” and draws audiences in as it provides a fascinating look at outrageous small-town inhabitants, along with non-stop laughs.
The show began in the early ’80s as a party skit the trio created based on a political cartoon. Early tour dates found an instant audience coast to coast, as the show played to packed houses in San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston and Hartford before Sears and Williams found themselves performing “Greater Tuna” for more than a year Off-Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre.That led to an HBO special produced by Norman Lear, which took the “Greater Tuna” phenomenon to every city in America.

Sears and Williams eventually took the show to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and a pair of command performances at the White House for President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush in 1990 and ’91.The popularity crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1988 as the highlight of Scotland’s famed Edinburgh Festival, while San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre saw a record-breaking seven-year run.Audiences liked “Greater Tuna” so much that Sears and Williams have written three sequels, which are all playing somewhere in the country at present.

“Greater Tuna” finally showed up in wine country last weekend, in the capable hands of a pair of talented Southerners, Jef Holbrook (Georgia) and Topher Payne (Mississippi). Sunday afternoon’s performance at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater was the final stop on a seven-month-long coast-to-coast tour. Seeing someone other than Sears and Williams inhabit the characters they created was indeed enlightening — to see that they’d drawn such larger-than-life caricatures that others could build on.

Although I’d seen the savvy Oklahomans send audiences into fits of laughter on numerous occasions, there were moments when I actually thought the weekend visitors were able to breathe added life into their respective roles. This is not an easy show to do as both men are often required to walk off stage and reappear in a matter of seconds as someone new, wearing a completely different set of clothes.

The two-member cast launches its small-town tale with radio announcers Thurston Wheelis (Holbrook) and Arlis Streuve (Payne), roles to which they return throughout the show. But they also introduce us to the Bumiller family — Holbrook as the well-intentioned mother, Bertha, and Payne playing the roles of the three children — twins Stanley (a reform school alum) and Charlene (a cheerleader reject) and Jody, who willingly takes home all the stray dogs offered to him by the director of the humane society.

Holbrook also does a star turn as Aunt Pearl Burriss, who runs a one-woman campaign against chicken-killing dogs with her “bitter pills” (read poison) until she accidentally kills her husband’s prize bird dog. The list of characters includes a klansman, staunch weatherman, UFO spotter, and the vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, a fashionista named Vera Carp. I feel Payne made this character even more bizarre than the actor who created the role.

A moderately sized crowd, offered a cool auditorium on a hot afternoon, seemed to really enjoy this marvelous satire of small town Americana. Holbrook and Payne did the show’s authors proud.

A quick preview of some of these Texans reveals Judge Buckner who dies under mysterious circumstances, Vera Carp and her censorship club, the Smut Snatchers of the New Order who meet to censor the dictionary, town drunk R.R. Snavely who spots a UFO shaped like a bean burrito, the Tuna Little Theatre’s unique production of “My Fair Lady” using the scenery and costumes from “South Pacific” and the town’s one-man Humane Society who launches an urgent campaign to rescue homeless ducks.

“Greater Tuna” has been called “A tour de force of comic acting” by Variety magazine, and “Wonderfully warped … Audiences go bananas” by the New York Post. The performance at Lincoln Theater in Yountville is the final show on the current national tour, and the first visit to Napa Valley by Topher Payne.

“Our show at Lincoln Theater will be our final performance in the tour.  I can’t believe it’s really ending.  The cast and crew have been together for seven months, and we really are like family.  But since it is time for us to say goodbye, we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place to do it.”

“Greater Tuna” plays Lincoln Theater Napa Valley on Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. For tickets which range from $29 to $39, contact the Lincoln Theater Napa Valley Box Office, 100 California Drive, Yountville, Napa Valley, by calling (707) 944-1300 or visit www.lincoln theater.org.

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Mount Vernon, Washington - Greater Tuna by Jef Holbrook

“Greater Tuna,” the comedic chronicle of a typical day in the third smallest town in Texas, comes to Lincoln Theater Napa Valley in Yountville on Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. This comical two-man show is a popular satire of life in rural America – where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.

The play “Greater Tuna” was written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in 1981 in Austin, Texas where it became a cult favorite before moving on to Houston then to the Kennedy Center and finally an extended run at Circle In The Square in New York. Since then, the trio has written the popular sequels, “A Tuna Christmas” and “Red, White and Tuna.” Last summer, the fourth play in the Tuna canon opened in Galveston, “Tuna Does Vegas.”

The show’s stars Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne play more than 20 characters representing the population of the entire Greater Tuna area including men, women, children, animals and space aliens. The “cast of characters” requires very quick costume changes by Holbrook and Payne and their crack team of “dressers.” Some changes occur in fewer than four seconds, prompting Payne to refer to the dressers as his very own “NASCAR pit crew.”

“The show is a workout,” said Payne. “I walk off as Vera the church lady with wig, jewelry, pantyhose, gloves, everything.  Eight seconds later I’m back on as Stanley, a seventeen year-old delinquent in camouflage.”

“Greater Tuna” opens with the morning news report from the local low-power radio station hosted by two slow-talking broadcast celebrities - Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie - who keep the town up-to-date on Tuna’s late-breaking news. From there the production ensues with a fast-moving and highly-entertaining avalanche of the town’s characters and their sometimes ridiculous antics.

“Jef and I are actually around the same age as original stars Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were when they started back in 1981,” said Topher Payne. “So this tour really captures the energy and anarchy ‘Greater Tuna’ had early on.”

So are these two actors from anywhere near the town of Tuna, Texas? Not quite. Jef Holbrook is from Georgia and Topher Payne is from Mississippi, so even though they are not from Texas, the duo recognized some of the characters from their own childhoods.

“Early in rehearsals (director) Ed Howard told us we were being way too nice,” said Payne. “He told us that these people are from Texas. They say exactly what’s on their minds, and couldn’t care less what people think. Southerners coat everything with a little sugar. Texans don’t, and that makes them a lot of fun to play.”

Redding, California - Greater Tuna by Jef Holbrook

By Jon Lewis, Contributing Writer

What: Greater Tuna

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: State Theatre, 333 Oak St. in Red Bluff

Tickets: $24 and $29 ($3 discount for advance purchase)

Available at Fran's Hallmark, Act II and Sky River Music, all in Red Bluff, or by calling 529-2787 or visiting www.statetheatreredbluff.com

Some numbers to consider when "Greater Tuna" swims into the State Theatre in Red Bluff at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday: two actors; 22 characters and 22 costumes; four: the number of seconds required for some of the costume changes; and two: the number of lungs you're likely to wear out from laughing.

"Greater Tuna" is the quick-witted, fast-paced brainchild of Ed Howard, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears that brings to life a day in Tuna, the "third-smallest city" in Texas, a hamlet populated by men, women, children, animals, oddballs and aliens.

Originally staged in 1981 in Austin, Texas, the show quickly developed a cult following and moved on to Houston and finally New York. The play begins with the morning news from "celebrities" Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie and proceeds, in quick-change fashion, to the various news and crime scenes around town.

News items include the mysterious death of Judge Buckner; the work of Vera Carp and her censorship club (the Smut Snatchers of the New Order) who attempt to censor the dictionary; a bean burrito-shaped UFO spotted by town drunk R.R. Snavely; and a performance by the Tuna Little Theater of "My Fair Lady" using costumes from "South Pacific."

Through it all, actors Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne pop into and out of a host of costumes with the help of some lightning-fast backstage dressers.

"Everybody knows these characters," said Paul Pierce, artistic director of the presenting Springer Theatricals. "If you're not related to them, married to them or live next door to them, you probably are them."

Tuna Christmas at Thalian Hall by Jef Holbrook

'Tuna' casserole comes to Thalian Hall

Tuesday

Posted Dec 2, 2008 at 1:20 PMUpdated Dec 2, 2008 at 1:26 PM

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By Ben Steelman, Staff Writer

For those who like comedy casseroles, Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts serves up "A Tuna Christmas," a quick-change comedy that flavors the holidays with Texas barbecue sauce.

This sequel to the Broadway hit "Greater Tuna" will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday at Thalian Hall.

In "A Tuna Christmas," two actors (Topher Payne and Jeff Holbrook) portray all the inhabitants of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas.

As our story opens, Tuna's annual Christmas lawn display contest is boiling down to a battle between socialite Vera Carp and Didi Snavely, proprietor of Didi's Used Weapons ("If we can't kill it, it's immortal"). Meanwhile, Tuna's community-theater production of "A Christmas Carol" is threatened by unpaid electric bills and a Ghost of Christmas Past who refuses to give up his spit cup.

Ed Howard, who co-wrote the show with Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, directs this production, a touring show from the historic Springer Opera House in Columbus Ga.

Want to go?

What: 'A Tuna Christmas'
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 5
Where: Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $25 reserved seating, $18 general admission.
Details: 343-3664

Ben Steelman: 343-2208

ben.steelman@starnewsonline.com