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LA Theater Review

A Tuna Christmas

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Although it's been making its holiday rounds in regional theatres for years now, I have to admit I'm a Tuna Christmas virgin. In fact, I'm a stranger to all things Tuna, referring to the trilogy of two-person plays -- written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard -- each a loving look at the people and pets in a much-too-small Texas town. What a treat, then, to be introduced to this very particular world by first-rate performers and get a little estrogen twist in the bargain.

Originally written for male actors Williams and Sears, the current reincarnation of A Tuna Christmas stars comedy veterans Mindy Sterling and Patrick Bristow. Between them, they play 22 men, women, and children, plus a couple of offstage animals; the quick-change cross-dressing conceit is a big part of the show's charm. Director Stan Zimmerman gets this and moves the evening along at an easy pace on Kevin King's whimsical setting, showing a genuine fondness for the show's gentle humor. The characters are wonderfully down home and authentic, whether it's the wealthy Vera Carp (Sterling), who covets the town's Yard Display Contest trophy; beleaguered housewife Bertha Bumiller (Bristow), who juggles her errant children and absent husband; or Tasty Creme waitresses Helen and Inita (yep, Sterling and Bristow), who tell the town just where to go as they thaw ground beef. The actors never overplay their hands when delivering knowing barbs about family, religion, and the good old U.S. of A: "Censorship is American as apple pie, so shut up!" And big hugs to costume designer Rhonda Dynice Brooks and the amazing wigs by Eusebio Aynaga.

Again, not having seen the all-men-in-dresses version, I'd imagine the addition to the cast of the excellent Sterling downplays the yucks a bit. Sorry: A woman in drag is just not as funny as a man in drag. But while Bristow's babes provide some of the evening's biggest laughs, Sterling's petite guys are sweetly, slyly touching. So when spending Christmas Eve in Tuna, you probably won't find gut-busting hilarity. However, you'd be hard-pressed to leave without a smile on your face. And you get to listen to the most fabulous collection of shoulda-been-lost Christmas songs ever (sound designers Steve Kahn and Benjamin Jones). If that doesn't put you in the holiday spirit, I don't know what will.

Presented by Combined Art Form Entertainment at Theatre Asylum,

6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Dec. 7-Jan. 6.

(323) 960-7753. www.cafearts.com.

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