A fresh helping of 'Tuna'

The "Tuna" tradition continues. Back in 1988, the Oregon Cabaret Theatre presented a sweetly satiric swipe at rural Texas called "Greater Tuna." Written by two guys living in Austin, Jatson Williams and Joe Sears, "Greater Tuna" was a love letter to all the dinky, dusty, little Texas towns that escapees like best to ponder when seen through their rearview mirrors. OCT did the play again in 1994, followed in 1997 by the sequel "A Tuna Christmas."

"Red, White and Tuna" is the latest installment. Written in 1998 by Williams, Sears and their director, Ed Howard, and updated in certain particulars by OCT for this season, "Red, White and Tuna" returns to the "third smallest town in Texas" for its combination Tuna High School Reunion and gala Fourth of July Celebration.

The conceit of the "Tuna" trilogy is that two guys play all the roles — 20 of them in this play. Here, OCT has cast a guy and a gal, Christopher Bange and Alexandra Blouin, with much cross-dressing, cross-cross-dressing, stuck-on mustaches, padded bosoms and fishnet stockings. This is a play chock-full of quick costume changes, and having the double gender-bending just makes it funnier.

All the previous denizens of Tuna have returned, and then some. Williams and Sears added two dippy hippies, Star Rivertree and Amber Windchime (formerly known as "Bernie and Fernie"), reluctantly returning home to a town without tofu.

But we still have the hosts of the local radio station, Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, commenting on the news and not-so news of Tuna. Arles, it seems, after an unpleasant divorce, is about to tie the knot again with Bertha Bumiller. The wedding is going to take place at the palatial home of solid citizen (and president of the Smut Snatchers) Vera Carp, as soon as Vera has all her furniture covered in plastic. Vera, it seems, calls all her housecleaners Lupe: "I can't learn some new name every time the Border Patrol gets lucky."

Vera is also preoccupied about making sure she wins the vote to be Tuna High School Reunion Homecoming Queen. Both Aunt Pearl Burras and Didi Snavely (of Didi's Used Weapons, "If we can't kill it, it's immortal") are running against her.

Aunt Pearl Burras may be very old but she's pretty hip. Poor Didi, still smarting from husband R.R.'s abandonment — he left her for a UFO — has become bitter. They come up with a devilish idea — why not throw in a ringer? Vera is so unpopular that the town votes in its only cross-dressing homosexual, Joe Bob Lipsey, as queen.

There's gentle Petey Fisk, determined to save all animals. There is young Stanley Bumiller, out of reform school and off to Santa Fe where he has become a star on the art scene by spray-painting road kill. There is Stanley's sister Charlene, married to a soldier and very pregnant. ("I can't believe we are out of malt balls. Don't you people care about my baby's nutrition?") And for spiritual uplift, the Rev. Sturgis Spikes will speak, now that he is finally out of prison — again.

"Red, White and Tuna" is much gentler than its predecessors. Although the satire is still sharp, the characters seem to have more heart — and motivation — than in "Greater Tuna" or "A Tuna Christmas." This play actually has a plot and character development.

The only downside to "Red, White and Tuna" is that it is too long. Gags and situations are repeated and the action often gets a bit too frantic. "Tuna" begins to be too much of a good thing, especially in the last scene when Arles and Bertha start their honeymoon.

This production is directed by Lenny Neimark, who makes up for non-Texas roots with a finely honed sense of fun.

Michael Halderman has created an evocative set using lots of barnwood and old-timey props for a living room and kitchen off to the side.

Resident costume designer Kerri Lea Robbins has really delivered here — check out the Tasty Kreme girls' matching vinyl and Vera Carp's coronation gown. She should also get kudos for the quick change outfits skillfully maneuvered by dressers Roxanna Clover and Karen Jones.

Dining note: OCT has a new chef, James Rustin, formerly of Porters. The current dinner menu has a bit of Texas in honor of the show, including catfish, ribs, and "Texas caviar" (marinated black-eyed peas). The food is very good and artfully served.

"Red, White and Tuna" plays through March 28. For more information, call the box office at 541-488-2902 for more details.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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