Mime, that red-headed stepchild of performing arts genres — so often ridiculed, spoofed or made the butt of jokes — rises to new heights in “Greater Tuna,” now playing at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre.
In the opening scene, actors Jeff Stockberger and Eddie Curry portray Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, two wanna-be radio talk show hosts. They sit at a retro kitchen table, broadcasting to the Greater Tuna listening area from their makeshift radio station OKKK.
Stockberger lights a pipe that doesn’t exist, then pours coffee from an imagined pot into two unseen cups, raising and lowering the pot so it doesn’t splash. The two receive news flashes, handed to them from a mythical station intern and flip through the invisible sheets of paper as they read the stories.
At the end of the skit, after the lights go down — and I swear I saw this — Curry picks up the non-existent pile of papers, bounces them off the tabletop a couple of times to tighten up the stack and then lays them back down neatly on the corner of the table before exiting the stage.
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Stockberger and Curry, two consummate actors and regulars on the Beef & Boards stage, portray all 19 parts in Beef & Boards’ season opener, “Greater Tuna.”
The show requires quick costume changes, split-second timing and some major character shifts as they take turns exiting and quickly re-entering as another character in Tuna, Texas, a fictional and humorous community made up of stereotypical and eccentric small-town characters, some of whom we might recognize.
In the middle of the aforementioned scene, Stockberger exits and returns moments later as Didi Snavely, owner of Didi’s Used Weapons as the sponsorship for the radio call-in program. As Didi, he ends his rapid-fire commercial with, “If you find a weapon here that won’t kill, you bring it back and we’ll give you something that will,” before exiting and re-entering as Struvie.
As often as the two have been on stage together — they’ve been friends and co-workers for 29 years — they have forged an onstage chemistry to rival Martin and Lewis. Their comedic interaction at Beef & Boards has included “The Addams Family,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Run for Your Wife” and “The Odd Couple,” to name a few.
As the two talk show hosts, they agree on most topics, thereby circumventing spirited banter on any given subject, but their repeated agreement (“It is.” “It is.” “It surely is.” “It is.” “It is indeed.”) fills radio airspace and, as a running gag throughout the show, is hilarious. It is. It is, indeed.
The source of humor in “Greater Tuna” is the stereotyped small-town mentality. Skits poked fun at the winners of a high school essay contest, with titles such as “Human Rights: Why Bother?” and “The Other Side of Bigotry”; an overzealous Humane Society representative; and a mother comforting her daughter after a failed attempt at cheerleading tryouts.
Curry, as the mother in a green and white pant suit (where does that woman shop?) comforts Stockberger as the teenage daughter, who does a quick change to become the teenage son trying to get his mother to fix him some breakfast. He finally gives up with, “I’ll just get some M&Ms on the way to trade school.” Now that’s real life — and it’s funny.
I’ve read other reviews of “Greater Tuna” that called the show mean-spirited in its caustic treatment of small-town life, but truth be told, many of the characters in “Greater Tuna” may be familiar.
Curry, as Bertha Bumiller, former head of the Better Baptist Bureau, outlines her plan for removing certain books from the library, such as “Roots” because it shows only one side of slavery, or “Huckleberry Finn” because it advocates avoiding chores. Stockberger as Vera Carp, president of Smut Snatchers of the New Order, has a plan to clean up the dictionary: “If there’s a word you don’t want your children around, bring it to the next meeting.”
The play puts a humorous spin on the death of a local — and apparently unpopular — judge, as Pearl Burras (Curry) pays her respects while lamenting a romance that could have been.
But it takes a dark and unsettling turn when ne’er-do-well Stanley Bumiller (Stockberger) stands whispering down to the invisible body in the casket. Apparently, the judge had recently suffered a stroke and lay immobile as Stanley sneaked into the judge’s bedroom and used a hypodermic needle to inject air bubbles into his bloodstream. I kept waiting for a funny ending, a punch line, anything, because surely a play this light-hearted and entertaining couldn’t take such a dark turn.
The humor quickly returned, however, with Humane Society volunteer Petey Fisk (Stockberger) pleading for sensitivity to the needs of fish, Vera Carp’s (Stockberger) call for moderation in the bilingual education offered in the public schools, and the cliché-ridden eulogy for the judge from the Reverend Spikes (Curry.)
“Greater Tuna” is a wildly popular community theater presentation and was in fact performed by Greenfield’s own Ricks-Weil Theatre Company in April. The critical success of “Greater Tuna” spawned several sequels, including “A Tuna Christmas,” “Tuna Does Vegas” and “Red White and Tuna.”
Hopefully, over the years to come, Stockberger and Curry will continue their tight camaraderie in “Tuna” sequels on the Beef & Boards stage.
“Greater Tuna” at Beef & Boards guarantees an evening of laughter in a play where we might see our friends, our neighbors and sometimes ourselves.
Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre presents“Greater Tuna”
9301 Michigan Road, Indianapolis
Performances through Jan. 28
Call for tickets: 317-872-9664