Sierra Rep brings fresh ‘Tuna’ to Columbia

Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat /

Get ready for a satirical ride into the hearts and minds of the polyester-clad citizens of Texas' third smallest town.

Actors Mark Chambers and Bill Mootos will morph into more than two dozen denizens of Tuna, Texas, in "Red, White and Tuna," playing Friday through Oct. 17 at the Fallon House Theater in Columbia State Historic Park.

What began as a comedy skit inspired by a political cartoon more than 20 years ago in Austin, Texas, has evolved into a "Tuna" phenomenon. The brainchild of comedians Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, "Greater Tuna" debuted in 1981 and by 1985 was the most produced play in the United States.

"A Tuna Christmas" followed in 1989.

The "Tuna" franchise found fame for over a year Off-Broadway, led to an HBO special, two command performances at the White House (for President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush), international acclaim at Scotland's Edinburgh Festival and a Tony Award nomination for best actor.

Sierra Rep had success presenting the first two installments at East Sonora and the Fallon House.

Russell Garrett (SRT's "Beehive," "Smokey Joe's Café" 2002) is the show's guest director and said he is looking forward to the challenge of bringing the third installment to the Fallon House stage.

The show revolves around a wide range of small-town characters, most of them off-kilter: Radio Station OKKK's DJs Arles and Thurston, coffee shop waitresses Helen and Inita, long-suffering Bertha Bumiller and her wayward offspring, animal advocate Petey Fisk, a white supremacist, two aging hippies on a road trip and many others.

"The show is definitely about the characters," Garrett said. "It's about bringing the characters to life in the fullest possible way. Chances are you'll recognize someone you know."

With deep Texas roots, Garrett knows what he's talking about.

"A lot of my family is from Texas,"he said. "Not necessarily from small towns, but the behavior is similar. I took three people from Texas to see the show and we just howled.

"The writers are very clever in being able to make you laugh and comment about life in the U.S. in general. But the aim is always to make you laugh."

Garrett has seen all three "Tuna" shows - "Greater Tuna," "A Tuna Christmas" and "Red, White and Tuna" - all performed with the two originators, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams.

So while this is the first time he's directed a "Tuna" show, the characters are old friends.

"All the characters come back around from the previous shows and some even come to life that were previously only talked about in other shows," Garrett said. "But 'Red, White and Tuna' definitely can stand alone. You can enjoy this show without having seen the other two."

Mark Chambers (SRT's "Big River") and Bill Mootos take on the daunting task of creating more than 10 Tuna citizens each.

"Each character is fully formed - from head to toe," Garrett said. "While some characters only appear once, others come back again and again."

Garrett, Chambers and Mootos have spent ample time doing "table work," where they get to know the characters internally before adding in costume pieces.

"You have to give actors time to absorb the material," Garrett said. "They need to get under the character's skin and play within that framework."

Once they establish that framework, Garrett said, they add in glasses or cowboy boots, wigs and padding, all of which impacts the physicality of the character.

Garrett is working with guest costume designer Vanessa Lueck to heighten the already colorful characters.

"These are not drab people," Garrett said. "Our job is to quickly and efficiently create characters that are as fully developed visually as possible. The challenge is: how do we get them to look that way as easily as possible?"

The actors will get dedicated dressers to help them make those quick character changes.

Garrett also is working with guest set designer Erik Diaz to create the surrounding environment of Tuna, Texas, without overwhelming the stage.

"The heart and soul of the show is the people, so we don't want to clutter it up with a lot of set pieces and props," Garrett said. "We want the characters to shine through."

The show's production team also includes guest lighting designer Chris Littman, property master Jen Fletcher and stage manager Doug Brennan.

Thursday and Friday performances begin at 7 p.m., Saturday evening shows begin at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m.

A special "talk back" performance is Thursday, Sept. 30.

Tickets are $22 to $28 depending on the performance day, with discounts available for groups, seniors, students and children.

For reservations or more information, call the Sierra Rep box office at 532-3120 or visit www. sierrarep.org.

11817429
The Union Democrat
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