KPBS AIRDATE: September 8, 1993
Which theater to go to this week? It all depends upon your Weltanshauung. If you like things present tense, comical with a dash of sarcasm, head up to Poway for “A Tuna Christmas.” If you lean more to the cynical and historical, “The War to End War” is right up your alley.
Truth be told, neither play paints a particularly pretty portrait of America. But one’s a brightly colored miniature — very small-town, very redneck. Very Texas. And the other gives us The Big Picture — an expansive canvas, done in broad brush strokes, dark tones. A look behind the scenes at the Treaty of Versailles and the bomb-building at Los Alamos.
A quick glance at the cast of characters tells the tale. In “A Tuna Christmas,” two actors play 22 townsfolk of Tuna, Texas. Folks like Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, Dixie Deberry, Inita Goodwin and Farley Burkhalter.
In the world premiere of “The War to End War,” we meet Woodrow Wilson, Ho Chi Minh, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer, among others, including four Dada dancers, presenting a chaotic cabaret performance that recreates and updates the sort of spectacle that bridged the World Wars.
The two segments of the 100-minute “War” play that bookend the sexually arousing Dada piece, show the idiocy of the Europe-chopping Treaty signers, and the bleak, game-playing emotional disengagement of the creators of the atomic bomb.
The production, jointly presented by Sledgehammer Theatre and director Matthew Wilder’s California Repertory Theatre, highlights the best and worst of the playwright and director. Acclaimed writer/historian Charles L. Mee, Jr. can be bitingly clever and darkly poetic, or maddeningly verbose and opaque. Director Matt Wilder, recent UCSD graduate, can be brilliantly, maturely focused and inventive, or surprisingly callow and self-indulgent. Both creative artists, and their casts, peak in the third segment of this play: the stark, simple setting of a poker game in Los Alamos.
There’s something to remember in every segment of this piece; Wilder is a crack creator of arresting visual and auditory imagery. But in the third part of the play, words and images come together in a riveting, gut-wrenching, Chekhovian way. There is, of course, no war to end war. The beat, as they say, goes on. In a spellbinding analogy to game theory, we see that no one ever really cashes in their chips, and someone’s always upping the ante…
The whale-sized problems of war are a far cry from Tuna, Texas, where the most pressing problem of the day is who’s gonna win the Christmas lawn decoration competition. The plotline of “A Tuna Christmas” is ludicrous, and the laughs are far less frequent than in the original hit, “Greater Tuna.” But writer-actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams are fabulous. The hottest quick-change artists since Clark Kent.
There’s a mean streak or a yellow stripe running through every one of their petty little characters, but you still can’t get enough of them. This piece is more heart-warming than hilarious. But if you hail from Texas, you’ll probably howl, even if you don’t listen to radio station OKKK. If you don’t like your sensitivities tweaked, you’d better stay home; this probably isn’t the theater week for you.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.