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Vagabond Players open centennial season with wry trip to 'Greater Tuna'

Steven Shriner, left, and Brian M. Kehoe in Vagabond Players' production of "Greater Tuna."
(Tom Lauer)

If you are concerned about encroaching bilingualism (and why shouldn't we all just speak "American"?), or if you just wish you could "make the world a better place for the right people," head on down to Fells Point. You'll find lots of kindred souls there -- on the stage of Vagabond Players.

Yes, it's a return to "Greater Tuna," the still-stinging satirical play by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, who put the fictional Tuna, "third smallest town in Texas," on the map back in 1981.

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It's a place with a Better Baptist Bureau; a gossipy radio station (the call letters OKKK have a certain ring); and the kind of deep sentiment that can lead to such pithy pronouncements as: "Human rights -- why bother?"

This two-actor work makes a wry entry point for the Vagabonds' centennial season. Timely, too, considering some current headlines. Chances are, "Greater Tuna" will always strike a relevant chord.

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To be sure, some of the material was never entirely brilliant to start with; some of it has aged. Recurring, creepy segments about animals seem more off-key than ever now. And the second act still gets pretty leaden in spots.

That said, the play has such infectious fun lampooning bigots and hypocrites that it's hard not to join in the laughter. And it has always had one surefire thing going for it -- the chance to see two performers wrestle with a whole heap of crazy characters of both genders.

Williams and Sears made a long career out of doing this show and its offspring (Spotlighters Theatre will tackle "A Tuna Christmas" later in the season). The duo engaged for the Vagabond production embraces the challenge heartily.

Steven Shriner, so impressive in "Born Yesterday" with this company last season, again offers vibrant, assured work. He shines especially as the Rev. Spikes, a cleric who never met a cliche he could resist, and the oh-so-sincere Bertha Bumiller. Shriner strikes me as quite a gift to community theater in this town.

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His counterpart here, Brian M. Kehoe, doesn't reveal as much ease and nuance, but delivers a good deal of color along the way. He nails Vera Carp, a higher-up in the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order, with particular flair.

The production, directed, designed and costumed by Anthony Lane Hinkle, evokes a lot with a minimum of means; the dominant stage prop is a pile of old radios. Pacing could be crisper in spots, but there's spicy flavor in the delivery.

Most crucially, the innumerable costume changes are executed in well-oiled fashion; the unseen dressers (they get a bow at the end) prove to be true Tuna helpers.

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