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Two male actors, redneck humor drives Civic’s latest, ‘Tuna’

Damon Mentzer as Pearl Burras, left, and Dan Anderson as Dixie Deberry in one of their many costume changes in Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Tuna Christmas.” (Colin Mulvany)
Damon Mentzer as Pearl Burras, left, and Dan Anderson as Dixie Deberry in one of their many costume changes in Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Tuna Christmas.” (Colin Mulvany)

For those playgoers who have not yet experienced the slapstick charms of Tuna, the “third smallest town in Texas,” here’s a hint: Imagine “King of the Hill” meets “Benny Hill.”

In other words, “A Tuna Christmas,” consists of redneck humor delivered by two male actors who each dress up as 12 different characters, including Bertha Bumiller, Petey Fisk, Sheriff Givens and Didi Snavely, the owner of Didi’s Used Weapons.

It has the same low-rent appeal as its precursor “Greater Tuna,” written by the same team of Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard.

Yet “A Tuna Christmas” is different, and not only because it takes place entirely on Christmas Eve.

“There’s a real, human soulful side to ‘A Tuna Christmas’ that isn’t there in ‘Greater Tuna,’ ” said director William Marlowe.

In fact, there are moments when the word “poignant” applies.

If anyone should know the differences in these shows, it’s Marlowe. He brought down the house at Interplayers in 1997 in “A Tuna Christmas” and again at the Actors Repertory Theatre in 2006, where he appeared in both “Greater Tuna” and “A Tuna Christmas” in repertory.

During that run, the cast asked audience members which “Tuna” they preferred. Two-thirds chose “A Tuna Christmas.”

“They said that even though the situations are ridiculous, there are some real moments,” said Marlowe. “All of the things that Bertha goes through are very touching and show a very human side of a dysfunctional family.”

Marlowe said he considered the idea of reprising his “Christmas Tuna” roles for the Civic, but finally decided to direct.

“They wanted someone with the background to direct this – it’s such a difficult show to do,” he said. “Not only is it a farce, with absolute madness backstage because of the costume changes, but also because the two actors have to play 12 characters each.”

Now, he’s happy he made the choice to direct, because he’s so proud of his two-man cast: Dan Anderson and Damon Mentzer, both former students at Spokane Falls Community College, where Marlowe teaches theater.

“Their chemistry together is wonderful – they really trust each other,” he said.

They also have the ability to improvise, which is vital in this show.

“You absolutely know that a time will come when the other person is backstage, and the zipper gets caught, and you have to fill that moment by yourself,” said Marlowe.

Marlowe is also pleased with the “new and wonderful visual effects” the Civic’s tech department has planned for the show.

He promises some surprises; the other Spokane productions of “A Tuna Christmas” have been relatively bare-bones affairs.

Actually, the Civic’s set designers had a particularly large challenge in designing this show.

The theater will be doing two shows in rotation this Christmas season: “A Tuna Christmas” and the family show “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” which opens Nov. 28.

So the designers created a set for “Tuna Christmas” that rotates 180 degrees to reveal … the set for “Best Christmas Pageant.”