by Patrick B. McGuigan
Editor’s Note: This is expanded, to include our exchange with director Steve Emerson, from an article in the March 2018 print edition of The City Sentinel.
Don Jordan, founding director of The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (CityRep) knows – and I know – that he has a sure-fire hit on hand for the March 15-April 8 four-weekend run of “Greater Tuna.”
The two-man show (with Jordan and Jonathan Beck Reed each portraying multiple characters – the guys and the gals) returns to the Civic Center’s Little Freede Theatre as a guaranteed smash.
Steve Emerson will make it look easy to direct these two fellows – and, he even hinted in our recent exchange — it IS easy.
So, I cut to the chase.
Jordan had so much fun over the years with the “Tuna” characters created by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, is there any sense, I asked, that this is his “swan song” with them?
Jordan replied, “These plays have been a significant part of my career, and Jonathan Beck Reed’s, both together and separately. We have both been very fortunate to have received some very kind, positive recognition over the decades for these plays.
“‘Greater Tuna’ is an exciting challenge for an actor – each of us plays 10 difference characters – younger, older, male and female – with more than 20 costume changes. Changes performing these plays is roughly equivalent to three or four normal plays’ worth of work.
“This makes this play a rewarding mountain to climb, albeit a steep and high peak.
“And, it is a particular joy and privilege to get to make this journey with two extraordinary artists like Jonathan and Steve.
Having said that, the players are very demanding.
“Our audiences at CityRep have asked us to bring ‘Greater Tuna’ back for them to enjoy. We have done the sequel, ‘A Tuna Christmas,’ four times as a holiday perennial. We have only done ‘Greater Tuna’ once, six years ago, and at that time it set the all-time Box office record at CityRep. Folks have repeatedly asked us to bring it back for an encore.”
The problem was, he explained in our exchange, “The rights were not available for awhile due to a national tour that was out, but they became available again in November. … This is truly a case of ‘back by popular demand.’
“Still, I think this may be the last time we do them, at least with Jonathan and I acting in them. The actors’ mechanism changes, and ages – and we must be aware of those changes. ‘The moving finger of time doth write, and having writ, moves on.”
Then, Reed got the floor. This reviewer has watched Reed and Jordan battle to keep characterizations on track when “something” happens during performances of the Tuna Tales. A few times, I’ve felt like I was watching a live version of the old Carol Burnett shows, when the story line threatened to jump from the rails (all in the midst of good fun).
So, I asked Reed to reflect on the joy he has obviously derived, including unscripted moments, from performing his characters oppose Jordan.
He replied, “Looking into Dons eyes is always a calm in the storm. He is a consummate professional, and, always connected to the moment, and, very generous. Given our long history together, we’ve forged a kind of psychic bond, of sorts, as well. It’s as if we can read each other’s minds, which inevitably leads to interesting interplay, which, often isn’t ‘scripted.’
“All of the two-man ‘Tuna’ shows require many split second changes, and, no matter how practiced, things can and do go wrong. One example I often cite — We were doing ‘A Tuna Christmas,’ and, it was a scene in a diner, where, I, as Helen Bed, a waitress, was playing opposite Don as the eccentric, Tuna Little Theater Director, Joe Bob Lipsey.
“Lipsey storms into the diner riding an over the top, dramatic rant, demanding FOOD to comfort his misery. His costume consisted of a tank top under an opened bright floral Hawaiian shirt. Well…unbeknownst to Don who was ‘in the moment,’ his left chest had popped out of the tank for a visit, and, quickly became a third character in the piece. The audience was fully aware of it, as was I, and, so, it had to be addressed.
“So, I looked on in horror and insisted he ‘put that thing away!’ I told him I was ‘a waitress, not a milk maid,’ and, as soon as Don caught on, it was all OVER! I’ll bet we improvised three minutes between us, all over that one wardrobe malfunction. And, the audience went with us.
“That’s what you get with Don. A freedom and willingness to live in the moment and trust one another to play outside the lines. That’s an example of a one-off incident, but, last year, during ‘A Tuna Christmas,’ Don was playing with new ideas for characters he was never really happy with.
“One such character was a dim witted fellow named Ike Thompson. A new idea he came up with was to make Ike talk reaaaallllyyy sloooooooow, which was very funny, BUT, since Ike was talking to my character, Didi Snavely, and, Didi wasn’t the sort of lady to suffer fools, I couldn’t imagine she would just stand there and let him go on and on.
“So, since Didi despised Ike, I just started improvising/miming different ways to kill him while he was talking so slowly…by hanging (I mimed making a noose, throwing it over a beam, putting it around his neck, hoisting him up, and tying off the rope), by hitting him over the head and, miming digging a grave, throwing him into it, covering him up, and genuflecting, etc.
“This went on and on in rehearsal, until we all broke into hysterics, and, director Steve Emerson, said ‘Keep it!’So, we kept it, and, night after night, it got some of the biggest laughs.
“One of the great things about working with Don and Steve, is the freedom to be inventive. It’s that willingness to try new things, and, trust the actor instincts that makes these shows such a joy to do. And, my freedom, and trust, and twinkle, is all reflected in Dons eyes.”
Emerson, interviewed after The City Sentinel had closed the March print edition, added to the sentimental and substantive reflections. He told this reporter,
“What I find with ‘Greater Tuna’ is that, like all great plays, there is much more depth and subtext than it might at first glance seem. Especially with two great actors like Don and Jonathan, there is always more to discover. The inventiveness of these two guys is beyond measure, so I don’t think we have yet to discover the depths of all these characters. All of us who are from this part of the country have relatives who are these people. They’re real people to us and, I think, to our audience. And as Mark Twain so famously said, truth is stranger than fiction. Honestly, when Don Jordan walks onstage dressed as Aunt Pearl he is my great-grandmother.”
He continued, “Of course the story of ‘Greater Tuna’ can also lead us down the path less traveled. What’s more interesting than murder, extortion and domestic abuse?
“Honestly, it’s not that’s hard for me to explore new avenues since all I have to do is ask the boys to give me something different and they do. In the blink of an eye they’ll give me five ‘somethings different’ to choose from. It’s a great luxury to work with such creative artists, and that’s true of everyone involved in this production: our set designer Ben Hall, our costume designer Danielle Trebus, our lighting designer Tristan Decker, and our amazing crew of dressers. It’s very freeing to be able to ask for almost anything and just have it happen. No director could ask for a better situation than this one.”
Not to get all sentimental, but – if you like comedy, in person, you’d better find a way to get to this show. I said to Jordan he had to be delighted with the commercial success the plays have brought to City Rep. But, cash flow and creative performances aside, I asked: “What is the ‘secret’ of the Tuna Tales?”
Jordan replied, “‘Greater Tuna’ and ‘A Tuna Christmas’ capture with a great artistic sensibility the particular language and customs of people from the Southwest. There is also a reason humor that the plays full embrace. We know these people, heck we are these people – and they are also our friends, neighbors and relatives.
“We can share these plays and laugh together with recognition.
“We are very grateful that our audiences have embraced these plays and our performances in them. The biggest hit in CityRep history is ‘Greater Tuna,’ and the second biggest hit is, ‘A Tuna Christmas.’
“The joy of laughter we have all shared, and the generous support our patrons have shown to these plays, have helped us in our mission of service to Oklahoma City – artistically, educationally and economically – and we are very grateful and happy to share this play with our friends one last time.”
Greater Tuna is rated PG-13. Leave the young’uns at home this time.
Tickets are $8 for Students, Teachers and Military Personnel (with ID), $25 (groups of eight or more), $35 (matinees) and $40 (evening performances), and may be purchased by calling the Civic Center Box Office at (405) 297-2264 or online at cityrep.com.
CityRep Season Sponsors include the Oklahoma Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Richard P. Dulaney Foundation, the Chickasaw Nation, The Grandison Inn, The Oklahoman, Cox Media, KWTV NEWS9 and The City Sentinel.
‘Greater Tuna performances are on tap for Thursday March 15 at 7:30 p.m., Friday March 16 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday March 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday March 18 at1:30 p.m., continuing Thurs. Mar. 22 at 7:30 p.m., Fri. Mar. 23 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday March 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Sun. March 25 at 1:30 p.m.
The four-weekend run continues Thurs. Mar. 29, 7:30 p.m., Fri. Mar. 30, 7:30 p.m., Sat. Mar. 31, 7:30 p.m. and Sun, April 1, 1:30 p.m.; the final lap begins Thurs. Apr. 5, 7:30 p.m., Fri. April 6, 7:30 p.m., Sat. Apr 7, 7:30 p.m. and Sun. Apr. 8, 1:30 p.m.
CityRep’s mission is “to serve Oklahoma’s diverse artistic, educational and civic needs by providing dynamic professional theatre.” The City Sentinel, institutionally, and your humble servant, personally, are proud to support our friends in this mission. For more information please visit cityrep.com or call (405) 848-3761.