ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I had the good fortune many years ago in New York to see Charles Ludlam and his Theatre of the Ridiculous perform “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a two-actor comedy that has each actor playing a multitude of characters of both sexes. Ludlam and his partner, Everett Quinton, would dash off stage only to return as a new character of the opposite sex (with full costume change) in just a matter of seconds. It was unbelievable – and hilarious. Ludlam died tragically young, but he and his Ridiculous Theatre Company are now legendary.
Vortex Theatre is currently producing “Greater Tuna,” a play in some respects similar to “Irma Vep.” Two actors play 18 characters, often leaving the stage in a suit and tie only to return seconds later wearing a dress. What is astonishing is that the two actors, Brennan Foster and Shawn Boyd, are perhaps even better than Ludlam and Quinton were. Each character is distinct, believable – and hilarious.
“Greater Tuna” mercilessly skewers the folks of the small Texas town of Tuna. Most of the characters recur periodically, including perhaps most memorably the Bumiller family.
As you can see, the humor of “Greater Tuna” can be dark. The show opens with a couple of good ol’ boys co-hosting a radio show on the local station OKKK. That is not the only reference to the Klan, as one of the characters, Elmer Watkins – who wishes to “make the town safe for the right kind of people” – is the head of the local chapter of the KKK.
The laughs are nonstop, so it’s hard to single out any particular scene. One features the president and vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, the Reverend Spikes and Vera Carp, at a town hall meeting. Carp constantly tries to one-up Spikes and during his cliché riddled speech rolls her eyes, yawns, and eventually falls asleep.
All the costume changes take place off stage, except one. When Boyd changes from Sheriff Givens to Aunt Pearl the change takes place before our eyes, on stage, as a sort of strip tease. This is the sort of ingenious choice that typifies the entire show, thanks to director Marc Comstock, who perfectly captures the rhythm of the show and gets marvelous performances out of his two actors.
When the play was over, the seven dressers came out for a well-deserved bow. When the actors came out, the audience rose to its feet to give them an equally well-deserved standing ovation. This is an extremely funny show, as well-done or better than anything you will find in New York or Chicago. The satire may not be entirely fair to the folks of small-town America, but it is no less funny for that.
“Greater Tuna” plays through Aug. 6 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.