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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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Two actors play 20 eccentric Texans in University Theatre's Greater Tuna
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Greater Tuna: Two actors portray 20 eccentric Texans.
Credit:Jono de Leon

The UW Hemsley Theatre has been transformed into a little bit of Texas with the University Theatre production of Greater Tuna (through July 27, with an additional run Sept. 19-28). A satire of rural life in the Lone Star State, the play features 20 eccentric residents of a town called Tuna, all of whom are portrayed by only two performers: Kailen Fleck and Trevor Rees, both students in the university's MFA program in acting and directing.

The costumes for all of these larger-than-life characters are also stars of the show. Designer Jim Greco dresses Rees and Fleck in overstuffed women's wear, rhinestone-studded suits, cowboy attire, floral-print dresses, and an impressive variety of hats and wigs. Kudos should also go to the production's three dressers, who have the daunting task of outfitting each actor in these elaborate getups between scenes. Rightfully, they take a bow at the end of the performance, along with the actors.

Helped by the outlandish outfits, the actors do a nice job of clearly differentiating a multitude of Southern archetypes with distinctive accents and mannerisms. Rees in particular makes strong physical and vocal choices to separate Tuna residents such as the lisping animal lover Petey Fisk; the 5-year-old, cowboy-obsessed Jody Bumiller; and awkward failed political candidate Phinas Blye.

According to the play's authors, Greater Tuna began more than 25 years ago in Austin, Texas, as a party skit based on a political cartoon. From there, Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard built the sketch into a full-length production that has been a staple of community and regional theaters ever since.

Indeed, much of the show feels like an overlong sketch, akin to a funny bit from Saturday Night Live that is unwisely made into a feature-length film. The humor of the situation just can't be sustained for more than a minute or two, and some of the gags fall impressively flat. Audiences on opening night greeted with silence such characters as a used-gun dealer, a speech-impaired Ku Klux Klan leader and a sadistic grandmother who kills the neighbors' dogs with strychnine.

By far the most successful part of the evening involved Rees as a prim, judgmental old woman campaigning for bilingual education so English speakers could effectively yell at Spanish-speaking service people. As her partner in pious pomposity, Fleck effectively channels Southern televangelists as Reverend Spikes. In a eulogy for the local judge, he employs every maxim and platitude the playwrights could string together, for great comic effect.

While quick-change plays like Greater Tuna are often described as "fast paced," this production lopes along, with actors occasionally vamping as they wait for a costume change to be completed. Under Jim Stauffer's direction, the storytelling style is as broad as a Texas sunset, which often undermines the comedy while underlining how hard the actors are trying to make the scenes work.

Unfortunately, Greater Tuna is not greater than the sum of its hackneyed parts.

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