CEDAR CITY – The comedic relief provided by this fall’s Utah Shakespearean Festival production of Greater Tuna, directed by Brian Vaughn, offered an interesting yet offensive, look at the life of 20 small town Texans, who are walking stereotypes for the Deep South. Set in Greater Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, each of the townsfolk, who were all played by the same two actors, Michael Daly and George Walker, manage to hit every nerve they can find along the hour-and-a-half journey through their neighborhood.
The first of these colorful characters, Arles Struvie (Walker) and Thurston Wheelis (Daly), radio announcers for OKKK Radio, hosted our adventures through the wacky world of Tunadom, introducing the audience to only the most intriguing eccentrics along the way. From R.R. Snavely, the resident drunk who claims to see a UFO in the shape of a giant chalupa to Petey Fisk the town puppy pusher who works for the local humane society trying to help annoying little dogs like Yippie find good homes, the cast was full of animation.
The play might have been fantastic, but the humor didn’t connect for me. When Mrs. Bumiller, card carrying member of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, listed the books she wanted pulled from the school system and why, it took everything inside of me not to get up and walk out of the theater. Among the list of books and reasons for removal were Roots, because it just didn’t “properly represent the ‘other’ side of slavery,” and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, based on the fact that it “painted that wonderful hero General Custer in such a negative light.” Now it is one thing to make fun of these crazies who try to pull good literature from the school systems but, in my opinion, there were more ways the writers could have gotten a laugh. Doing so at the expense of two groups of people who lost so much of their culture and freedom for the selfish needs of our forefathers is not only low brow, but crass in my opinion. Honestly, I was not surprised at the number of empty seats I found after coming in from intermission that had previously been filled, including four directly in front of me. I for one was sick to death of the racial humor and the callous approach to country living very quickly.
The newly emptied seats in front of me, however, allowed me the opportunity to get a much better look at the set and I have to say the design was fantastic. Jo Winiarski managed to create a playful and curious environment that transitioned beautifully from the radio station to the Bumiller home and every place in between. The giant metal frame covered in hubcaps that encompassed the face of the stage was ingenious; when it shook violently during the UFO sighting it almost felt as though I was out in a field somewhere with a giant hovering aircraft over top of me… very effective.
While Daly and Walkers transition from one character to another was near seamless, regardless of the gender or age of the personality being portrayed, the occasional flubbing of Walker’s lines became a bit distracting about two-thirds of the way through the performance. It is my contention that it would not have been quite so bad had he just kept going, instead he would just repeat the same word over and over again until the rest of the line finally came to him. The errors made it difficult for me to suspend disbelief long enough to let these characters come to life.
The costumes designed by Jennifer Caprio added spectacular flavor to the already animated group of small town hicks. The vibrant colors of lime green and bright yellow were almost as offensive to look at as the sideways humor was to listen to. This only served to bring out the personalities of each individual we met and I have to say was exquisitely done and when coupled with the intense lighting provided by Donna Ruzika, the three elements almost made the play bearable.
The music that played as the audience made their way to their seats before the play, during intermission and after the play was a brilliant way to set the mood for the evening’s adventure. I would be remiss to mention that the familiar sounds of Willie Nelson going “On the Road Again” and Patsy Cline going out “Walkin’ After Midnight” had much of the audience, myself included, singing along and boogying in our seats. While the mood music and sound offered by Barry G. Funderburg was effective for creating atmosphere, it was difficult not to notice the times when Mrs. Bumiller would send a dog out the door and the sound of the door opening wouldn’t come until the door was already open. The timing was flawless in some places but inconsistent in others leaving me to wonder how much practice time the cast was given before putting this act onstage.
Overall, on a sliding scale from one to 10 I would give the production itself about and seven, but the content falls miserably low on the scale for me. I have been going to USF plays now for about three years and find myself frequently dazzled by what I see before me. I am sad to say, this experience was not in congruence with my previous encounters. I have grown to expect more from USF over the years. I expect to be smacked in the face with witty jokes that make me think and observe the world around me in a new light, even when it is a comedy. I was not only surprised at the content of the play for a USF production, but I was in utter amazement that for some reason it was shown in the Randall L. Jones Theatre, where I have come before to see only the most magnificent of performances offered, such as the world premiere of Great Expectations which I appreciated deeply.
It seems to me that when a company is looking to step outside of their box, they should really spend more time considering the audience they have spent years cultivating and try to at least maintain the standard they have set in the past. While I understand that money is tight, cutbacks are inevitable and having a play with two actors instead of a full cast of ten or so can be a great way to cut corners, I would prefer to leave the South Park and Family Guy humor on my television set. I can watch that for free in my living room.