Review: 'Greater Tuna' offers stinging commentary from Station OKKK

12:36 PM, Dec 17, 2012

Greg Pragel and Eddie Staver III each play several roles in Downstairs Cabaret's production of 'Greater Tuna.' (Photo provided by DCT)/

Written By Leah Stacy

Not everything is bigger in Texas.

The Lone Star state has hundreds of small towns dotted throughout its 268,800 square miles, each inch brimming with larger-than-life personalities.

One of those small towns, albeit fictional, is the focus of Downstairs Cabaret Theatre’s production of Greater Tuna.

Greater Tuna premiered in 1981 and has been on stages across the country ever since — by 1985, it was the most-produced show in North America. With its trademark cast of two males playing more than 20 roles (varying in gender and age), the two-hour performance was ahead of its time in regard to economic, tour-friendly productions. It was so popular that it spawned three additional versions: A Tuna Christmas (on stage right now at RAPA East End Theatre), Red, White and Tuna,” and Tuna Does Vegas.

The original actors (and co-writers), Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, developed a solid fan base and continued to tour each version up until this fall, when they took a break to work on personal projects. The third co-writer, Ed Howard, still directs.

Tuna, Texas, is full of big hair and bigotry: It’s a weighty commentary on small-town mentalities and stereotypes. Bible camp, political scandal, unrequited love and conservative activism are all broadcast from Station OKKK.

DCT’s production stars Eddie Staver III and Buffalo native Greg Pragel, an energetic duo that populate the show with delightfully ridiculous characters. Watching the actors’ transformations into Petey Fisk of The Greater Humane Society of Tuna, who rescues local ducks, and Mrs. Bertha Bumiller, the conservative Baptist housewife who secretly wishes her cheatin’ husband would have a stroke, is like watching a series of caricatures come to life. It’s a lightness that allows for costume and wig mishaps, inevitable during quick changes.

Jay Moscowitz’s set creates spot-on atmosphere, from mustard and mauve-colored walls adorned with tacky plaques and gilt-framed photos of country stars and starlets to the “patio,” a hearty nod to ’80s design with folding metal lawn chairs and a white lattice trellis coated in colored Christmas lights and faux flowers.

Props are imagined — easily so, due to the improv expertise of Staver and Pragel —and range from rotary phones to cigarettes and a massive number of puppies.

Pragel is especially deft at switching characters and vocal intonations, but shines most as Stanley Bumiller, a murderous (yet loveable) teenage rebel. Staver provides less vocal variety, but his depiction of spunky, osteoporosis-ridden Pearl Burras and the disingenuous Rev. Spikes are side-splitting.

Several moments were nearly interrupted by audience cellphones and malfunctioning moustaches, but neither actor lost a beat. To their credit, they quickly turned the mishaps to comedic moments or refocused the attention (not to mention they’re both impressively adept at walking in high heels).

Greater Tuna has been called the darkest in the Tuna series, but it’s a dark humor if anything, and satisfyingly satirical.In the words of the Station OKKK DJs, “If you find someplace you like better than Tuna, Texas, move.”

For Rochester audiences, it’s a place you should definitely visit.