Red, White and Tuna at Richardson Theatre Centre

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[This piece originally appeared in John Garcia’s The Column]

Third in the notoriously loopy Tuna Trilogy (Tuna, Texas, Tuna, Christmas) written by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard, Red, White and Tuna is a tongue-in-cheek satire on the politics, religion and taboos of Texas, encapsulated in the small town of Tuna. Sometimes oblique and others, over-the-top, Red, White and Tuna is (as you might expect) set on July 4th, when a picnic, wedding, and high school reunion are planned. It opens when a couple of alumni who have changed their names to Star and Amber, are dubiously returning to this Bible Belt province to attend the reunion. They are leery of the reception they will receive, since they have adopted the alternative, vegan-hippie lifestyle. Didi Snavely is prepared to walk down the aisle with Arles Struvie after her husband, R.R. disappeared long ago, possibly kidnapped by aliens. It is a reliable barometer to consider that in any Tuna comedy

improbability rarely figures into the mix, and calamity (or at least the unfortunate) is generally right around the corner.

Mishaps and tribulations abound. Tainted potato salad, eleventh hour cold feet, an upset in the election for Reunion Queen, pregnancy out of wedlock. What otherwise might be treated as the stuff of melodrama is exploited for comic purposes. Howard, Sears and Williams are never cruel, but neither do they prevaicate. Well, not exactly. Joe Bob Lipsey is elected Reunion Queen, and while obviously camp and distasteful to some, nobody’s threatening to lynch him or vandalize his house. The citizens of Tuna may not be the most enlightened, but they draw the line at thuggery. Though the town radio station is WKKK, the uglier implications of those call letters are never pursued.

For those of you who may not be acquainted with the Tuna Trilogy just like The Mystery of Irma Vep, two men play all 22 roles (though I suppose you could cast more) the way the creators, Sears and Williams premiered Tuna, Texas, back in the day. The costume changes are rapid and though they make no pretense at convincing drag, it’s actually much funnier that way. And some of Tammy Partanen’s costumes do look like actual women. Think: wigs, wigs, wigs! The minimalist set (lack wall with a few pieces of furniture) helps to keep things moving. I cannot say whether those who are not native Texans find these Lone Star stereotypes amusing, but for me, their familiarity made them better.

It’s a curious mix, this Red, White and Tuna, a somewhat affectionate, cartoony skewering of the racism, pettiness, military extremist, coldwater Baptist myopia that seems to prevail in Texas. The caricaturing actually seems to work in its favor, so it better when it’s crisp, rather than pensive. This is kind of a touchy time to be raising such issues, but perhaps that could be all to the good. That all being said, co-stars Dan Evers and Nathan Willard tackle this logistical nightmare with grace and aplomb.

It can’t be easy keeping each scene distinct and the pace bouncy. It was much easier to follow the dialogue than I’ve seen in other productions. Evers and Willard communicate the quirky pleasure of text with mastery.

Richardson Theatre Center presents Red, White and Tuna, playing July 15th-31st, 2016. 518 West Arapaho Road, Suite 113, Richardson, Texas 75080. 972-699-1130. richardsontheatrecenter.net

Onstage in Bedford’s beguiling Jekyll & Hyde

jeckyll1Created by a team including: Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden, stage musical Jekyll & Hyde certainly casts a new light on Robert Louis Stevenson’s familiar fable. The brilliant Dr. Henry Jekyll, who, attempting to divorce man’s spiritual from his transgressive nature, accidentally taps into his shadow, manifested as Edward Hyde. It’s not long before Hyde becomes dominant. Like the blackouts that come with alcohol abuse, Jekyll awakes with no recollection of Hyde’s crimes. The idealistic scientist can’t deny the rush and exhilaration he experiences every time he drinks his potion, but the longer he continues, the harder to return from the dark realm.

Successfully bold in numerous ways, perhaps a bit improbable in others, Jekyll and Hyde is nonetheless, captivating and entertaining. After Sondheim premiered Sweeney Todd, the idea of setting such content to music was no longer shocking, and the two are notably comparable. Bricusse (Book and Lyrics) Wildhorn (Music) and Cuden (Adaptation) establish a world (19th Century London) where any appearance of civility is a pretense, merely concealing our petty, vicious impulses from others. This theme is repeated throughout, and Hyde’s atrocities more or less soft-pedaled. His victims are the board members who refused to subsidize his experimentation, and the murders are quick and clean. Hyde is vindicated by punishing hypocrisy. He is able to secure justice in ways unavailable to the altruistic doctor.

Which brings us back to Sondheim Sweeney Todd. The barber Sweeney Todd is horribly wronged by the caste system that enables the privileged class to abuse the dis empowered. When Sweeney shouts his terrible epiphany (wielding a straight-edged razor) “My arm is complete!” we get a chill. He doesn’t use Jekyll’s potion as a device, but like Jekyll, stealth and mayhem are the only remedy for corruption in a corrupt world. Sondheim’s “message” is that surrendering to the id can only end in catastrophe, while Stevenson holds Jekyll unaccountable. Understand, Sondheim makes a compelling case for Todd’s grisly grooming techniques. Strangely though, Sweeney Todd is less ambivalent, but much more subtle.

One of Jekyll and Hyde’s strengths is buffering the ethical questions by putting them in mitigating circumstances. If we follow that path, however, the word “Evil” should never come up, though the point may conceivably be that moral relativism simply doesn’t work. Jekyll & Hyde too often resorts to the cerebral, but in its best moments is exceptionally humane, touching, raucous and introspective. We can all certainly relate to the helpless feeling that comes with sticking to higher ground.

Director Bill Sizemore impressively navigates a piece that is laden with opportunities for cheesiness. It’s not easy to depict subjects like Jekyll’s transformation, prostitution, pubs, and bring something fresh to them. Sizemore uses the limited space well, and the timing is professional and intuitive. Another tricky element here is tone, and Sizemore is genuine and lucid without being didactic. The music is well conceived and executed, the costumes range from striking to outre’. The cast is poised and skilled at sharing their intensity and joviality.

Onstage in Bedford presents Jekyll and Hyde, playing July 8th-31st, 2016. 2819 Forest Ridge Dr. Bedford, TX 76021. (817) 354-6444. www.onstageinbedford.com

Herbbits, Wizards and Borks – Oh My!

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Pocket Sandwich Theatre has again brought us a delightful, ridiculous, wonderfully entertaining, popcorn-tossing spoof. No one exploits the preposterous with such giddy cheer as PST. Playwright and actor Nick Haley has written this silly send-up of The Lord of the Rings, though other references to pop culture fly fast and furious-ly. Harry Potter, Donnie Darko and My Little Pony (not to mention painful puns) just to name a few. If you are unacquainted with the sorcery and satire that is PST, well, more’s the pity, but here’s your opportunity to partake of this inspired evening of merriment and mockery. You should know that there will be much throwing of popcorn, both at the brave souls who occupy the stage, and your fellow audience members. By the time you head for the parking lot, you’ll swear it’s been snowing. Audience participation, whether cheering, booing or romantically sighing, is heartily encouraged.

Fido and his Herbbitt friends: Plucky, Simon and Mummer, have been summoned by Dumbledalf to destroy the Sable Impetus, lest The Dark Lord use its powers of invisibility for wickedness and vile purpose. An evil wizard named Gargamot assists The Dark Lord in his despicable plans. The journey is long and arduous with many perils along the way. Not the least of which is the hazards of romance. Haley doesn’t let any grass grow under their feet, there’s plenty of sturm und drang (of the comic melodrama sort) and, in the fine tradition of Looney Tunes, plenty of blue humor nudges to the adults.

[The kids are too busy flinging jiffy pop anyway.] There are titanic battles between Good and Evil, interesting ‘shroom experiments, and creepy, creepy ginormous creatures with a healthy appetite for do-gooders, In Herbbits, Wizards and Borks – Oh My! Pocket Sandwich once again demonstrates their endless capacity for loopy lunacy and imaginative antics.

Rodney Dobbs uses his considerable skill to create a vivid set that is appropriately low-tech, quaint and pragmatic. Director Dennis G. W. Millegan sets just the right tone for this fatuous farce. The actors know how to keep the energy high but the frenzy controlled. What must the performer’s motivation be when he’s about to be swallowed by some huge, crustaceous golly-wog? When a Scottish villain is caterwauling, how much brogue is too much? Somehow Millegan and this brazen and bubbly cast get the chemistry just right. It’s worth noting that in this when there is so much rage and frustration in the news, when emotions are running high and disappointments come at us without mercy, maybe a clever, ticklish comedy like Herbbits, Wizards and Borks – Oh My! is exactly what we need.

Pocket Sandwich Theatre proudly presents : Herbbits, Wizards and Borks – Oh My!, running July 1st through August 20th, 2016. 5400 E. Mockingbird Lane. Dallas, TX 75206. (214) 821-4643

Old Time Music Hall

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Theatre Britain’s Old Time Music Hall has a special kind of appeal. It transports us to the time of World War II, and entertainment that included patriotic songs, gentle ballads, and the pleasant wit of Gilbert and Sullivan. The period costumes and intriguing hair-dos, the gracious, genteel delivery of warbling, crooning and seemingly effortless dance cultivate a charming experience, not unlike hearing a song from the 1960’s that touches us with its innocence and lack of cynicism. In the fine tradition of Theatre Britain pantos, audience participation is encouraged in singalongs, and cringe-worthy gags prevail.

It is remarkable what you can infer from this show, the black suits with tails, the sumptuous dresses (designed by Barbara Cook) the childlike appreciation for the pleasure and wistfulness to be found in the world. Choreographer Jill Lightfoot masterfully manages the carefree and impressive dance numbers. The cast of 12 in this musical revue are nimble and poised, and it’s an advantage, I think, that they never resort to irony or winking at the audience. David Johnson as the host of these understated shenanigans, pounds his gavel and regales us with wonderfully corny puns and double entendres. The song choices are enjoyable. Vivid, warm, starry-eyed, unaffectedly enthusiastic.

Theatre Britain has a grand knack for communicating English culture and attitudes, and perhaps helping us appreciate the lovelier realms of nostalgia. It gives us a taste of how they endured the very real pain, confusion and loss of battle and romance. The way they sing Gilbert and Sullivan classics like “Poor Wandering One” and “I Am A Pirate King” makes wish they’d take on The Mikado or The Prates of Penzance. They want so much to help us have a splendid time, they provide us with song sheets and yes, even flirt with audience. [Of course flirted back] Bradley Gray provided a set that was both posh and welcoming, setting the tone for the entertainment. All in all, Theatre Britain has concocted a revue that is just sophisticated and informal enough to tickle and move us, deeply.

Theatre Britain presents Old Time Music Hall, playing June 24th-July 17th, 2016. Cox Playhouse, 1517 Avenue H, Plano, texas75074. 972-490-4202. theatre-britain.com


A Kid Like Jake

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Alex and Greg have a four-year-old son named Jake. Alex wants to get Jake into an erudite school, so we find her nervously preparing his resume: writing an essay, answering questionnaires, consulting books to improve his chances. Judy is the principal of the kindergarten that Jake currently attends. She and Alex are close friends and this has several advantages. Judy knows and loves Jake, Alex and Greg, so she can coach Alex as she applies Jake to prestigious schools. During a strategy session she essentially recommends that Alex mention Jake’s (for lack of a better term) gender-fluid worldview. This sets a series of incidents in motion.

Alex and Greg are well beyond progressive. They do not mind when Jake likes to dress as a princess, say, like Cinderella. They don’t have meltdowns when Jake identifies with female characters. Alex is a bit leery about following Judy’s advice, but she’s been assured that the current trend towards diversity will work in her favor. It’s only when Jakes wishes to go trick-or-treating in female persona that the situation begins to deteriorate. Greg and Alex do not shame him, but it’s a challenging ordeal. Suddenly Jake is acting out, defiant to authority figures, showing signs of personal crisis.

Playwright Daniel Pearle has created a subtle, sharp, even fanciful at times, exploration of the intense and pervasive impact of gender, and how best to love those dearest to us. Pearle strips away layers from Alex and Greg and their marriage, and the buried, tumultuous issues left unacknowledged. A Kid Like Jake considers how certain events are shaped by the attitudes brought to them. It examines the crucible of wrestling with the expectations and constraints of those around us. Pearle takes a loaded topic (laden with pain) and handles it with grace and precision.

Jenny Ledel (Alex) Ian Ferguson (Greg) Christie Vela (Judy) Kia Boyer (Nurse)

Second Thought Theatre presents A Kid like Jake, playing June 29th-June 23rd, 2016. Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus. 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 752193 info@secondthoughttheatre.com 1-866-811-4111.

T3’s Psycho Beach Party Crazy Fun

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Psycho Beach Party : A camp comedy by Charles Busch

Stuff and nonsense. Goofy gags. Lunacy. “Psycho Beach Party” is Charles Busch’s tribute to famous beach bum surfer and hormone-crazed teen movies of the 1960’s such as Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo and Gidget, with passing homages to Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Slasher Films. This is relatively tame material for Busch, whose other plays include: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Die, Mommie, Die! but is nevertheless loopy, manic fun. The seeming effortlessness of flawless comedy comes crashing down when we see shows that lack timing, chemistry, tone and expose how depressing forced humor can be. I am thrilled to say this definitely not the case with Psycho Beach Comedy. Busch has a knack for twisting and infecting insipid pop genres and so does director Bruce Coleman and this acrobatic, fizzy cast. They know how to achieve the perfect balance and harmony of deadpan delivery.

Chicklet feels worse than a frog caught in a cyclone. Nature has not yet delivered her female “assets”, Surfer Guru Kanaka refuses to school her and her pathological mother doesn’t want her to have anything to do with boys. Best friend Berdine feels abandoned by Chicklet, and Star Cat is having romance problems with bleach blonde douche Marvel Ann. Silver screen icon Bettina Barnes is AWOL from the studio that is stifling her creativity, and must find a beach shack to evade the media. Bummer City.

One of the myriad delights of Charles Busch is his uncanny ability to transform cringeworthy burlap to comic gold lame’. [“Are you incognito? No, I’m Presbyterian.”] Busch also excels at celebrating the foolishness of cheesy film culture while exploiting it. Who hasn’t wanted to see a kid kick Joan Crawford’s ass? A tomboy channel Tallulah Bankhead? [Or was it Bette Davis?] A surfer dope go into unbelievably graphic detail about the mysteries of boinking? All this and more await you if you’ll merely surrender to the sublime, ridiculous bliss of Psycho Beach Party. Playing now at Theatre 3 through July 10th, 2016.

Theatre 3 presents Psycho Beach Party playing June 23rd-July 10th, 2013. The Quadrangle, 2800 Routh, Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-3300. www.theatre3dallas.com