Another heaping helping of 'Tuna' Comedy: Two men portray all the characters in the fictitious town of Tuna, Texas. This sequel to the 16-year-old show puts a holiday spin on the humor. @

December 07, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You might say that Joe Sears and Jaston Williams have become prisoners of Tuna, Texas. Sixteen years ago, the Texas-based actors created a two-man show called "Greater Tuna," in which they played nearly all the residents of the fictitious third-smallest town in Texas.

By now, the show, which started out as a party skit, has practically become an industry. Sears and Williams tour 10 months out of every year, while numerous other casts -- sometimes comprising a half-dozen or more actors -- continue to play the denizens of Tuna in separate productions around the country.

There's been an HBO special, and "Greater Tuna" has spawned two sequels, one of which, "A Tuna Christmas," opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow. Sears and Williams will re-create their original roles in this production -- their first appearance in Baltimore.

"We didn't suspect ['Greater Tuna'] was going to be a hit, and three shows later, it still surprises us," Sears said during a recent visit to Baltimore. Sears, 49, is the taller, more rotund member of the duo. He plays characters ranging from Aunt Pearl Burras, an otherwise sweet old lady with a penchant for poisoning stray dogs, to Joe Bob Lipsey, the community theater director whose efforts to stage "A Christmas Carol" provide the one of the main plot lines of "A Tuna Christmas." In 1995, he received a Tony nomination for his performance in the Broadway production of the show.

Williams, 47, his co-author (along with the show's director, Ed Howard), is smaller and wiry and depicts such Tuna-tics as Vera Carp, vice president of the local censor bureau (the Smut Snatchers of the New Order), and Didi Snavely, a gun dealer whose motto is: "If Didi's can't kill it, it's immortal."

After a decade and a half, Sears insists they still "try to get something redeeming into each one of our characters."

"You get more accommodating as you get older and a little more forgiving," adds Williams.

"Greater Tuna," the men say, was largely intended as a commentary on the Moral Majority. "A Tuna Christmas" emphasizes relationships, and the third and newest sequel, "Red, White and Tuna," which made its debut last summer, focuses on change.

Williams actually starred as Scrooge in a community theater production of "A Christmas Carol" in Lubbock when he was 20. The director was a "pussycat," he recalls, but "he could terrorize children, and they'd really behave for him."

Williams' memories of the holiday he describes as "blood and holly" also play at least a subliminal role in "A Tuna Christmas." "All those relatives would come to West Texas, and you'd try to get through the holiday without a major blood-letting," says the Texas native.

Sears, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, met Williams when they were both cast in a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in San Antonio in the early 1970s.

A quarter-century later, they are still close friends, although when they're not in residence in Austin, they go their separate ways -- Williams to his retreat in New Orleans and Sears to Wyoming.

"It's an old friendship that's been through a lot, and you kind of need your time off to find things to bring to it," Williams explains.

Even so, he says, "We always look at things to do together." Over the years, besides the Tuna plays, those things have included productions of "The Fantasticks" and "The Foreigner" (both of which have played Ford's Theatre in Washington), as well as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Lately, they've been collaborating on the libretto for a comic cowboy operetta called "Ochelata's Wedding," with music by French composer Jean Michel Damase. "It's quite a mix -- Texas, Oklahoma and Paris," Williams says of the piece, which had a workshop at the University of Maryland, College Park last May and is scheduled to premiere at the O.K. Mozart Festival in Oklahoma in 2000.

Now that they have three Tuna shows, it seems logical to wonder if they'd consider doing them back-to-back, in an all-day marathon perhaps. "We could 'Nicholas Nickleby' it," Sears says, with obvious interest.

"Much as I love these people, I can't imagine spending a whole day on it," Williams responds. As an example of the dangers of such an undertaking, he refers to a gaffe that occurred a few weeks ago. He was performing "A Tuna Christmas" in San Francisco when he suddenly heard himself speaking lines from "Red, White and Tuna." "I just stopped and said, 'That is from another play,' " he recalls. The audience, he says, was graciously forgiving.

Will there be a third Tuna sequel? They are hesitant to say never. But, Williams jokes, "I'm afraid it'd be called 'Rest in Tuna.' "

Show times at the Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza, are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25-$42.50. Call 410-752-1200.

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