Duo hope to catch some laughs in third `Tuna' play

They bring anti-bigotry messages to Washington

Stage

June 30, 2005|By Kate Campbell | Kate Campbell,SUN STAFF

Theatergoers can finally return to Tuna, Texas -- the third-smallest town in the Lone Star State with the wackiest denizens west of the Mississippi -- by way of the Kennedy Center in Washington until July 10.

The third installment in the Tuna trilogy, Red, White and Tuna, finds the townsfolk celebrating the Fourth of July and the Tuna High School Class Reunion and performers Jaston Williams and Joe Sears reprising their roles as the town's 20 colorful characters.

The Kennedy Center has hosted the debut of each national tour of the three Tuna installments since Williams and Sears first performed Greater Tuna in 1983. With shades of mockery against religious conservatives -- the malevolent Vera Carp and her Smut Snatchers tackle politically correct church hymns -- and plenty of fashion-challenged cross-dressing, the duo said eliciting guffaws is their main goal.

"The audience laughs so much," said Sears, 55. "That's really what keeps me going is the laughter -- it's such a tribute."

While there are plenty of messages against bigotry and hypocrisy, the pair said everyday circumstances are their biggest inspiration.

"It's a lot more than political satire," said Williams, 54. "We use humor to describe life in America -- marital relations, crises with the family. We use humor for everything."

Williams and Sears said they love the East Coast for its appreciation of the arts and the Washington area for its mix of urbane politicians, international exoticism and down-home sensibility.

"Part of Washington is almost a Southern city," said Williams, a Texas native. "You have a lot of people from this town who identify with the Southernisms."

He said one of the pleasures of performing in different parts of the country is subtly tweaking the show to appeal to different audiences. For Sears, his fondest memories of the area involve the two command performances in the early '90s for President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, complete with a White House tour and private perusal of "The Gettysburg Address" in the Lincoln bedroom.

"It was a thrilling moment I will never forget," said Sears, an Oklahoma native who spent most of his formative years in Texas. "In Arkansas they say you're in `hog heaven.'"

Both performers said they drew on childhood influences to flesh out their more sympathetic characters. Sears hails from sturdy ranching stock and was raised with a healthy dose of no-nonsense, "show-me" skepticism. Williams was raised with stout Texas liberalism.

"I borrow traits and mannerisms," Sears said. "When you play women you have to search a little deeper. ... I didn't have anyone like Bertha Bumiller in my family. I didn't have any religious bigots in my family."

"People's habits, eccentricities, mannerisms, their hairstyles -- it all goes in there," Williams said. The pair said they hope audiences come away with belly laughs and an introspective attitude. "They've just seen the most mean-spirited woman in the world," Sears said. "They'll think, `That sounds like Vera Carp -- I can't say that.'"

"Red, White and Tuna" will play at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through July 10. Shows are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. 2700 F St., N.W. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 202-467-4600. Visit www.greatertuna.com.

For more theater and dance events, see Page 33.

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