Review: Greater Tuna

Jonathan Beck Reed and Donald Jordan in Greater Tuna  
Photo by Mutz Photography

By Larry Laneer
March 22, 2018

Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre is providing a tremendous public service by staging Greater Tuna for all of us who lack enough goofballs, idiots, bigots, slackers, drunks, rednecks, ass scratchers, and sanctimonious pricks in our lives. Or if you have gotten this far in life and never seen this comedic two-hander, you have what may be your last chance to see the show before it rides off into a much-deserved sunset.

As with all City Rep Tuna plays (they’ve done multiple stagings of A Tuna Christmas), this production features Donald Jordan and Jonathan Beck Reed, both doing 10 characters. Jordan and Reed have already proven themselves in these quick-change shows playing male, female, and canine roles. They have not lost a step and are sharp as ever.

Now at CitySpace, the play centers around two yahoo announcers at radio station OKKK, broadcasting at 275 watts in Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas. Both Jordan and Reed play three or four main characters, but it’s refreshing to see them again in some interesting supporting roles. (It’s too bad City Rep doesn’t list the character names in the program; they can be hard to keep straight.) Jordan plays Leonard Childers, the blowhard station manager of OKKK with the call-in show “Leonard on the Line.” Reed plays Chad Hartford, a Truman Capote-like reporter from Houston who interviews a town busybody. His wordless reactions steal the scene. Jordan has the play’s best scene as Reverend Spikes, a bloviating preacher in a three-piece white suit and black string tie who gives a eulogy consisting completely of familiar clichés.

City Rep has done Greater Tuna only once before, in 2013. Steve Emerson directed that production and this one. Emerson also did the sound design. It adds something the show, which is done largely in pantomime: a squeaky screen door, panting and barking dogs, clucking chickens, slamming car doors, chirping crickets.

Danielle Trebus designed the costumes. The show has 24 costume changes for each actor, so it’s appropriate to cite the backstage dressers: David Mays, Michael J. Greene, Kris Schinske, Jon-Philip Olson, and Heidi Sue Wallace. Ben Hall’s set design looks like the 2013 production.

No one will argue that the Tuna plays are great works of art. In fact, they’re barely more than party skits. But they have something to say about their times. Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard wrote Greater Tuna in 1981, and it’s a subversive play. One character gets away with a gruesome murder.

The City Rep production hasn’t changed much since 2013. What has changed is the world we live in. This first became evident when City Rep did A Tuna Christmas in 2016, about a month after the Presidential election. After Trump, Black Lives Matter, sanctuary cities, The Wall, Charlottesville, and multiple church and school shootings, the play takes place in a different context today.

For example, a character named Elmer Watkins (played by Jordan) calls for vigilante vengeance against immigrants near Tuna. He later calls global warming “fake news.” He wears a red “Make America Great Again” cap. A character that may have been buffoonish in 1981 comes off as sinister today.

DiDi Snavely (played by Reed), owner of Didi’s Used Weapons, says if you don’t have a weapon that can kill, she will fix you up with one that can. At the reviewed performance, the audience reacted—thankfully—with an uncomfortable titter.

Jordan, who is also City Rep’s artistic director, has said this will probably be the company’s last Tuna. That’s good. The plays have run their course and had several other productions here. Surely, everyone who wants to has seen them already. Now, if a playwright would like to write a new quick-change comedy, goodness knows the world is supplying plenty of material. In Greater Tuna, you’ll hear nary a mention of the National Rifle Association, Fox News, or the alt right.

Greater Tuna by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard
Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays, through April 8
Freede Little Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.

Review: Finding Neverland

Cast of Finding Neverland                                                                                         Photo by Jeremy Daniel

By Larry Laneer
March 16, 2018

It will take more than fairy dust to get the musical Finding Neverland off the ground. Fairy dust: I guess that’s what the glittery stuff swirling around the stage is. Even the shaggy dog that elicits entrance “aaws” isn’t enough.

Based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee and on the 2004 motion picture Finding Neverland, both of which were inspired by true events, the show is about
J. M. Barrie and his writing the play Peter Pan. But shows about writing are hard to do, because writing consists mainly of someone sitting and staring at a blank piece of paper (or blank computer screen). So the creators (Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, music and lyrics; James Graham, book) tell about Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, to wit, a widow with four rambunctious boys.

What the production’s thin story line lacks in substance, it tries to make up for in volume. The thumping, seat-shaking first-act finale is louder than the second-act finale.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord as part of the OKC Broadway touring series, the show engages the audience visually but falls flat dramatically. The pop score is pleasant enough. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s period costumes are fine.

But Scott Pask’s scenic design, Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and projections by Jon Driscoll create impressive visuals. The set consists mainly of flat wings and a backdrop on which the projections depict 1903 London streets, an empty stage, verdant Kensington Gardens, a roiling sea, billowing clouds, other clouds that drift by a full moon, and what looks like a Barrie nightmare worthy of The Twilight Zone. The high tech is fine, but what Posner’s lighting does with shadows is equally effective. And projecting shadows is about as low tech as you can get. Other three-dimensional set pieces and props add various degrees of realism. This design team also did the Broadway production of 2015-2016. The director Diane Paulus and choreographer Mia Michaels from the Broadway show staged this version.

Will Ray gets lots of stage time as Barrie, while the bubbly Lael Van Keuren plays the widow. None other than John Davidson (yes, of Hollywood Squares fame) plays the American theatrical producer who puts Peter Pan on the boards. Davidson’s long, gray ponytail surely would have looked unusual for a man in the character’s position in 1903 London.

A highly synthesized eight-piece band accompanies the show. This ranks about average for a touring production orchestra.

At one point, Barrie advises the real Peter, inspiration for the Pan, “Life is too absurd to be taken seriously.” In these days and times, it’s hard to argue with that.

Finding Neverland by James Graham (book) and Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics)
OKC Broadway
8:00 p.m., Friday, March 16
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Saturday, March 17
2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., Sunday March 18
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.

Review: A Few Good Men


Ellie Valdez, Dakota Muckelrath, and Joshua McGowen in A Few Good Men . Photo by Jared Blount.

By Larry Laneer
February 24, 2018

Who could’ve guessed playwright Aaron Sorkin would be so prescient in his 1989 play A Few Good Men? Or is it just that everyplace we look now, we see the grimy pawprints of Donald Trump?

A Few Good Men was one of Sorkin’s early successes. He went on to adapt the play for the 1992 film version and write the screenplay for The Social Network and create the television series The West Wing, among many other projects.

Real events inspired the play, now being staged by Pollard Theatre Company in Guthrie. It concerns the murder of a young Marine at the United States Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A court-martial drama, the play features all the charms and flaws of the genre. It can be compelling, but it includes that hoariest of courtroom-drama devices: the witness stand confession. Lawyers tell me that does not happen in real life.

Like much work today by playwrights who grew up on movies and television, the script is cinematic with many short scenes that leap miles between locations. (No worries; Shakespeare did the same thing.) This presents director Linda Lee McDonald with challenges, and she handles them efficiently. I was surprised at the end when I looked at my watch and saw the production runs two-and-a-half hours.

Joshua McGowen brings the right mix of acerbic wit and intelligence as the Navy lawyer defending two Marines who have been charged with murder. The character is a wiseacre who went to Harvard law school on a Navy scholarship. He seems to be biding his time while fulfilling his three-year obligation to the Navy handling minor cases, until this one.

Crystal Barby (solid, as usual) and Keegan Zimmerman give fine performances as the other defense lawyers. They are idealistic and committed to justice as much as they are to the Navy, as military lawyers should be.

Dakota Muckelrath and Ellie Valdez play the Marine defendants. The characters’ blindered devotion to “unit, Corps, God, country” makes you wonder if they’re expertly trained military professionals or victims of brainwashing.

The villain and source of the vileness that’s poisoned Gitmo is Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup, played convincingly (and surprisingly) by James A. Hughes. A longtime Pollard company member, Hughes may not be the first actor who comes to mind to play the Trumpian base commander. But insidiousness can take different forms, and as the play goes on, Hughes’s Jessup grows seamlessly credible. He is arrogant, demanding loyalty, and won’t hesitate to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wants. Unlike Trump, Jessup appears to have genuine beliefs. When he says we live in a “world of walls” and he is the man on them defending America, he seems sincere in his own perverted way. To Jessup, the end justifies the means. Why wouldn’t it?

McDonald has assembled an able supporting cast. Alison Chambers seems young to be a military judge. Kevin Moore plays a Marine captain who has more integrity than a thousand Jessups.

Jerome Stevenson’s scenic design consists of four tiers painted institutional green with several wooden chairs and tables. The simple, flexible design helps McDonald keep the action moving.

The costumes (by Michael James) and how they are worn are mostly inauthentic. They are not ironed to military crispness; headgear isn’t worn when it should be; most footgear isn’t close to regulation. But military costumes are tricky. It isn’t against the law for costumes to be military uniforms, but the U.S. Code restricts the use of uniforms in films and plays. You can decide for yourself whether this production gets close enough. If you are military or a student of uniforms, you may be pleased or bothered by the costumes. If you’re neither, the costumes may seem fine.

Sorkin’s play shows what can happen when an entity (a military, government, or country) loses integrity and a sense of proportion. The characters talk a lot about honor while doing the most dishonorable deeds. That message remains completely relevant today.

A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through March 3
2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 18 and 25
8:00 p.m. Thursday, March 1
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison, Guthrie