Curtain Calls

Satire of rural life starts New Year off with a bang

When I first learned that "Greater Tuna" was part of Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble's inaugural season, I was – to put it politely – not impressed.
It's not that the two-man comedy was a BAD choice for the struggling theatre to attempt; in fact, from a budget standpoint, its selection made perfect sense.
It's just that every production of "Greater Tuna" I've seen over the years was – again, I'm being charitable here – less than stellar.
"Greater Tuna" is one of those unique concepts that truly needs a skilled director and two actors blessed with tons of talent to make it work. In lesser hands, the play's 20 characters can easily lose their oddball charm and degenerate into nothing more than silly and unlikable stereotypes.
So I crossed my fingers and put my faith in Artistic Director David L. Regal. After all, he DOES know a thing or two about running a successful theater company. And his cast – Paul Hopper and Thomas D. Mahard – seemed inspired. Even the choice of director – MBTE's Managing Director John M. Manfredi – sounded promising, especial after reading his very insightful program notes.
But ultimately, it's not a production's pedigree that matters; it's the execution.
And for the first time ever, I enjoyed the hell out of "Greater Tuna!"
The residents of Tuna, Texas tune in each day to OKKK, a small 275-watt radio station that serves Greater Tuna. From sunup to sundown, Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie sit in their makeshift studio in front of Tuna's general store and broadcast the town's daily news and gossip. It's a big news day – the local hanging judge was found dead wearing a Dale Evans one-piece bathing suit, and the Smut Snatchers of the New Order led by Vera Carp are planning a raid on local libraries to delete words from the dictionary that they find offensive. And Petey Fisk of the local Humane Society is still trying to find a loving home for Yippy the dog.
The town's quirky inhabitants are the charm of "Greater Tuna," created by playwrights Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard; the tough part for Manfredi, Hopper and Mahard, however, is making them likeable – which isn't easy for a town full of racists and right wingers who would make Rush Limbaugh look like a far-left Democrat. These are ordinary people living ordinary lives – but who haven't a clue that time – and social change – have passed them by.
And that's something Director Manfredi never forgets. Sure, the townsfolk are out of step with reality, but he always treats them with dignity and respect – something that's harder than it sounds, given such a broad and loony cast of characters!
Manfredi also does an exceptional job of pacing and staging "Greater Tuna." It would be simple to lose two lonely actors on Meadow Brook's spacious stage, but Manfredi never allows a dull moment to creep into his production. His use of Brian Dambacher's imaginative set is especially notable.
Most impressive, however, are the performances of Hopper and Mahard. These two stage veterans accomplish what many less talented actors never do: They each create nearly a dozen fully-conceived, distinct and believable characters in the blink of an eye. While some actors seem to think that only a costume change is needed to create a new character, Hopper and Mahard imbue theirs with unique vocal and physical attributes. Hopper is especially fine as Bertha Bumiller, Pearl Burras and Rev. Spikes, while Mahard is hysterical as Charlene Bumiller, Vera Carp and Petey Fisk.
All technical elements of the show are likewise fine.
"Greater Tuna" Presented Wednesday through Sunday at Meadow Brook Theatre, Rochester Hills, through Feb. 1. Tickets: $22 – $38. 248-377-3300.
The Bottom Line: As David Regal explained to a patron on opening night: There's nothing socially redeeming about "Greater Tuna" – it's simply a fun and funny production!

New Year rings in with new play festivals

If you're as tired of the same old plays as you are with the post-holiday winter doldrums, then the next few weeks could really brighten your life!
That's because two of Metro Detroit's professional theaters are holding their annual festivals of new plays, giving local theatergoers a chance to sample staged readings of original works by both new and established playwrights.
What surprises many people is this: The majority of new plays don't come from New York, but from the nation's local and regional theaters. As such, Detroit-area audiences are among the privileged few to experience a wide variety of "works-in-progress" – and better yet, to have their opinions heard by many of the playwrights who will attend the staged readings of their scripts.

Fireside Festival of New Work 2004

First on the schedule is this week's Fireside Festival of New Work at Ann Arbor's Performance Network.
Now in its fifth season, the Fireside Festival teams the Network with several other local professional theaters to celebrate the diversity of new works currently in development. The 12-production schedule includes:
Wed. 1/14, 8 p.m. – Blackbird Theatre's new adaptation of "The Seagull" by Barton Bund; Thurs. 1/15, 5 p.m. – "Hazard County" by Allison Moore; directed by Joseph Zettelmaier; Thurs. 1/15, 8 p.m. – "The Stillness Between Breaths" by Joseph Zettelmaier, directed by David Wolber; Fri. 1/16, 5 p.m. – "Devil Dog Six" by Mary Fengar, directed by J. Grant Stokes; Fri. 1/16, 8 p.m. – "Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins" by Brian Christopher Williams, directed by Isaac Ellis; Sat. 1/17, 2 p.m. – "2 by 2" by Kim Carney, directed by Jim Posante; Sat. 1/17, 5 p.m. – Planet Ant Theatre's "The Kitchen is Small" by July Shavers, directed by John Maxwell; Sat. 1/17, 8 p.m. – Jewish Theatre Ensemble's "A Song for Chaim Levy" by Shoshanna Boray, directed by Lynnae Lehfeldt; Sun. 1/18, 11 a.m. – "Relative Madness" by Peter Mellencamp, directed by Daniel C. Walker; Sun. 1/18, 2 p.m. – "Mariela in the Desert" by Karen Zacarias, directed by Carla Milarch; Sun. 1/18, 5 p.m. – Heartlande Theatre Company's "Love/Romance" by Jan Radcliff; Sun. 1/18, 8 p.m. – Heartlande Theatre Company's "The Last of the Aztecs" by Joe Feinstein, directed by Tom Aston.
Admission to each staged reading is only $5; an all-festival pass is available for $25.
The Performance Network is located at 120 E. Huron in Ann Arbor.
Complete information about the Festival can be obtained by calling 734-663-0681 or online at

The Seymour J. and Ethel S. Frank Festival of New Plays

The action moves to Detroit's northern suburbs next week with the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company's Seymour J and Ethel S Frank Festival of New Plays.
Staged Monday nights at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the West Bloomfield campus of the Jewish Community Center at 6600 West Maple Road and Tuesday nights at the Jimmy Prentis Morris Building on the Oak Park campus at 15110 W. Ten Mile. The schedule includes:
Jan. 19 & 20 – "A Song for Chaim Levy" by Art Schwartz; Jan. 26 & 27 – "It Should Be" by Ted Herstand; Feb. 2 & 3 – "Mensch" by Shoshannah Boray; Feb. 9 & 10 – "Coming of Age" by Kitty Dubin.
Each playwright – except for Boray who is expecting a baby in early February – will meet with the audience following the performance to discuss their script.
Admission to each performance is only $5. Call 248-788-2900 for complete details.


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