Jane Horwitz's Backstage: 'Tuna Does Vegas' Is the Next of the Tuna Plays

Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in
Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in "Tuna Does Vegas." (Courtesy Brenda Ladd)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The wing nuts, good ole boys, sensitive souls and battle-axes of Tuna, Texas, are all heading to Las Vegas.

"Tuna Does Vegas," starring Jaston Williams and Joe Sears will land briefly at the Warner Theatre Oct. 29-Nov. 1. Williams and Sears are, as always, the co-creators (with director Ed Howard) of this most recent of the Tuna plays (also including "Greater Tuna," "A Tuna Christmas" and "Red, White and Tuna"). Nearly 30 years ago, "Greater Tuna" launched what became a nonstop touring phenomenon for the actors, who play all the 20-plus "Tuna"-ites with lightning-quick offstage costume changes. It's been a solid source of income for the two men as performers and also as playwrights, when the works are licensed out to others.

"We do well, financially, for actors who are still living in Texas. . . . We're living in Texas because we prefer to live there," notes Sears. ("A Tuna Christmas" did play briefly on Broadway in 1994; "Greater Tuna" played off-Broadway in the early 1980s.)

Sears and Williams have cut way back on touring in recent years so that the two can spend more time at their homes in the Austin area and with their families. Sears, who plays the fleshier characters (among them tough Aunt Pearl Burras, woebegone Bertha Bumiller and put-upon community theater director Joe Bob Lipsey), says he's just turned 60 and expects he'll be perfectly happy to do the "Tuna" plays when he's 70. "I just asked myself, 'Now Joe, are you still going to be in a dress at 70?' And I thought, well, if they're still paying me . . . I'm prepared to face the reality of having fun, even at 70."

Bertha and radio host Arles Struvie, played by the lanky Williams, fell in love and married in the earlier plays, and in the newest one they travel to Las Vegas to renew their vows. Most of the town of Tuna follows them there.

"We've lived with these people for so long that they're like family," observes Williams, whose other characters include gun shop owner Didi ("If we can't kill it, it's immortal") Snavely, animal rescuer Petey Fisk, Smut Snatcher Vera Carp and Bertha's children by a previous marriage.

Williams says they first performed "Tuna Does Vegas" about two years ago, but continue to tinker with it. "It's a powerful feeling. When you write these people, you can kill 'em if you want to." The challenge is always how to make scenes funnier. "When you're wearing those costumes [designed by Linda Fisher] you've really got to push the scene, because you need to be funnier than what you're wearing," notes Williams.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Williams says he was in Vegas and saw a person who wound up in the play. "I was standing outside the wedding chapel and there was a professional bridesmaid who'd had a really bad day. She was really tired and she was dragging on a cigarette, with her bouquet between her feet on the floor. She had an itchy-looking tattoo. . . . We'll take that and run forever, with an image like that."

There are references to Tom DeLay and Dick Cheney (both beloved of Didi Snavely) in the show. Ideal, says Sears for Washington, "where they get all the jokes."

Chewing the Fat

Melissa Blackall has written a play about Americans' obsession with their bodies and, amid an alleged epidemic of obesity, their fear of fat. It is titled "The F Word," and the Inkwell, a Washington-based troupe that nurtures new plays, has mounted a production that runs through Sunday at H Street Playhouse.

"The F Word" ends the Inkwell's 2009 Inkubator Festival, which has featured 18 plays in development with open rehearsals, readings, master classes and panels, all at H Street.

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