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Satire blunted in Vortex’s ‘Tuna Christmas’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Vortex Theatre has had so much success with Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams’ “Tuna” plays that it has remounted some of them multiple times since 2007 when it staged the original “Greater Tuna.”

I was lucky enough to catch the third time round for “Greater Tuna” in 2017, which featured two extraordinary actors playing 18 characters. As I wrote then, they would “often leave the stage in a suit and tie only to return seconds later wearing a dress.” It was one of the funniest productions I’ve ever seen, and it had me, with the rest of the audience, laughing so hard it hurt. No wonder the Vortex stages these plays again and again.

Besides “Greater Tuna,” there are three others, including “A Tuna Christmas,” which the Vortex produced in 2007 and is staging again this year.

Tuna refers to the third-smallest town in Texas, and the plays mercilessly satirize the small-town denizens for their narrowness of mind, bigotry and moral rigidity (or moral laxness, as the case may be). Bertha Bumiller is one of the morally rigid, as her strict Baptist conscience forbids her to drink or dance. Her husband, however, whom we never see, is sexually voracious and unfaithful. So, for that matter, are the two “aspiring career women” Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, who work at the Tastee Kreme (one of them even plans to get her GED). In case you missed it, their names sound like, “I Need a Good One” and “Hell in Bed.” Both of them have trouble keeping their legs together.

The Tuna plays are light on plot, and consist mostly of a series of sketches that leave much room for comic invention on the part of the actors.

“A Tuna Christmas” revolves around a mysterious “phantom” who is expected to spoil this year’s Christmas lawn display contest. That contest is indeed spoiled when someone puts boxer shorts on the holy family in Vera Camp’s yard and pins a feminist button on the Virgin Mary.

The satire of “A Tuna Christmas” is not as sharp as that of “Greater Tuna,” and the play ends with sweet sentimentality as the forlorn Bertha and the lonely Arles end up dancing in each other’s arms at the annual OKKK Christmas party, the only two to attend.

The acting is not nearly as accomplished as it was in the production of “Greater Tuna” that I saw last year. The success of this show depends on virtuoso comic performances, and unfortunately, the two actors here are unable to lift the show to the comic heights it needs to climb to succeed.

Precise physical and vocal mannerisms are necessary to distinguish characters, and with one of the actors, at least, I could not discern the sex of the characters he was playing except through the gendered costumes. The rhythm of the show was sometimes spoiled, as well, either from poor memorization or simply a stumbled line. This is a hard show to do, and these actors, good enough for most purposes, were not quite up to the challenge here.

“A Tuna Christmas” is playing through Dec. 23 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.

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