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Leftover Tuna

Playhouse on the Square repeats itself; Hattiloo gets original.

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Some people (and for reasons that boggle the mind) can't get enough of A Tuna Christmas. Take, for example, the young lady who sat behind me at Playhouse on the Square Sunday night. She said all the punchlines moments before the actors could deliver them, then repeated particularly funny lines, laughed until she snorted, and laughed again at her own snorting. She wasn't the only person having a good time, though she was certainly the most obnoxious.

A Tuna Christmas is a small-town and smaller-stakes soap opera built on the unfortunately accurate premise that an audience will always laugh at chubby men in dresses and pee their pants at the mere mention of a Frito-pie.

Yes indeed, it is a treat to watch gifted character actors Andrew Moore and Michael Gravois transform before our very eyes into all the oddball inhabitants of Texas' third-smallest town. True enough, the actors have an infectious good time showing off their mighty arsenal of silly, whistling voices and strange, spit-laden dialects. But in spite of their populist appeal, all three of the Tuna plays (Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and the Independence Day thigh-slapper Red, White, and Tuna) are snarlingly superior and steadfastly middle-brow. What these protracted skits about big-hearted half-wits from hicktown lack in mere humanity, they more than make up for in sight gags, gross sentiment, and casual racism. (Midget Mexicans, anyone?)

The Tuna plays are all about making fun of culturally and economically challenged peckerwoods with big butts, bad hair, and tacky outfits. And they're also about getting misty when these poor inbred fashion disasters find sloppy love over a bottle of whiskey and a Floyd Cramer tune.

Oh well. After the box-office disappointment of Jerry Springer — the Opera (a far more daring take on the trailer-park set), Playhouse deserves a few full houses. It's been a blissful five years since POTS' last visit to Tuna, the dysfunctional trailer-park community where the locals tune into radio station WKKK (hyuck!) for up-to-the-minute reports on the annual holiday lawn-display contest. (Yeehaw!) Playhouse could drag out this crowd-pleasing garbage every year but doesn't. Astonishing! Praiseworthy, even.

Through January 6th

While Playhouse on the Square is busy dishing out the old and familiar, Hattiloo Theatre is attempting box-office suicide by presenting a monstrously depressing original script during the one time of the year when most of the city's theaters can actually fill seats and stock their treasure chests.

Written and directed by Hattiloo's artistic director Ekundayo Bandele, Forget Me Not Christmas is Sophocles' Antigone reimagined and set in the poorest place imaginable. It tells the story of recently freed slaves grieving over a monstrous tragedy, shaking off their ghosts, and sacrificing their identity to please the gods of their former captors.

Bandele is an exceptional writer, though sometimes he can go on like a politician in love with the sound of his own voice. At this point in his promising play's development, every line hangs heavy with dark matters and thundering self-importance.

Never let it be said that Bandele doesn't have a gift for developing epic metaphors. In the center of his set (and at the heart of his play), there is a massive wood-burning furnace that saved an entire community one particularly nasty winter. Sixteen members of that community were subsequently burned in the furnace when the original owner took his revenge for the theft, and the survivors are forced to decide if the man who stole the furnace was a Christ figure or a common thief who brought a curse down on his people.

Bandele's direction lacks the crispness his wordy play needs to move it along at a tolerable clip, and the actors often seem uncertain of their lines and blocking. Still, its flaws and overeager nods to playwrights like August Wilson and Suzan Lori Parks aside, there is something to it all.

Repetitive and seemingly unfinished, Forget Me Not Christmas is a holiday downer that needs someone other than the playwright to edit and stage it. That said, there is no reason to believe that Bandele's writing won't astound us all some day.

Through December 23rd

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