As the renowned inventor Charles F. Kettering said, “One fails forward toward success.” Louis C.K. expressed a similar sentiment in more modern parlance when he opined, “Whenever you leave behind failure you’re doing good. If you think everything you’ve done is great, you’re probably dumb.”
For the past 26 years, the Miners Alley Playhouse has been a jewel of the Front Range theater scene. Its successes far outweighed its failures under the stewardship of founder Rick Bernstein. Since taking over in 2014, Miners’ new executive team, Len Matheo, Lisa DeCaro, Brenda Worley Billings and Jim Billings, have continued the tradition of nearly every Miners Alley play exceeding expectations.
Of course, just like in baseball, you can’t hit a home run every time you step up to the plate. But even when you ground out to first or line one right into the third baseman’s glove, it’s not a true failure if you learn from the experience. It is in that spirit that I offer up some lessons that may be gleaned — by Miners Alley, other theater companies, playwrights, actors and people in general — from the rare strikeout that is A Tuna Christmas.
Lesson 1 — Know thyself
A Tuna Christmas, which is part of a collection of plays that includes Greater Tuna; Red, White and Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas, purports to be “an affectionate comment on small-town Southern life and attitudes but also a withering satire of same.” In truth, A Tuna Christmas forgets the “affectionate” part altogether while heaping on the scorn, derision and ridicule in Texas-sized portions.
Despite playwrights Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams’ assertions to the contrary, A Tuna Christmas has no love for its down-home subjects or their foibles. It paints each of its nearly two dozen characters — all of which are played by two actors (Seth Maisel and Christian Mast) — with the same broad brush. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in Tuna, Texas, is either a racist, a moron, a slut, a drunk, a gun nut, a bitch, an asshole or some combination of those traits.
Lesson 2 — Loud does not equal funny
The small size of the Miners Alley theater makes it a wonderfully intimate setting for shows like 2004’s world premiere of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Presumably in an effort to make the dialogue in A Tuna Christmas as funny as possible, both Maisel and Mast deliver most of their lines at top volume. When they’re not yelling at one another, they’re often screaming in distress or disgust. In the confines of the Miners Alley theater, the nearly ceaseless aural assault becomes monotonous and, frankly, uncomfortable.
Lesson 3 — Fidelity is overrated
All four of the Tuna plays originally featured two actors playing every one of the many characters. Most theater companies honor this tradition by stag ing their productions in the same manner. However, there is no actual requirement to do so. Perhaps if director Robert Kramer had gone rogue and broadened his cast by a member or two, the portrayals might have been more nuanced and the humor more effective?
Lesson 4 — Presidents are not necessarily the best cultural bellwethers
Sears and Williams, with Howard directing, presented a command performance of A Tuna Christmas for then-President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara. As president, I imagine Bush the First could have commanded the performance of just about any play by just about any theater troupe. The Texastransplant chose Tuna. No wonder he was only a onetermer.
Lesson 5 — End the War on Thanksgiving
Depending on whom you talk to, people either laugh or gripe about the Christmas creep. Every year, driven entirely by corporate America’s unquenchable thirst for profits, businesses kick off the “Christmas season” earlier and earlier. According to Target and other ads on my television, Christmas now starts the day after Halloween.
I’m all for capitalism, but to take a page from both The Simpsons and the rabid “reporters” at Fox News, won’t somebody please think of Thanksgiving?! Unlike Valentine’s Day, Talk Like a Pirate Day and a few others I could mention, Thanksgiving is a legitimate, first-tier holiday. If we continue to allow Christmas to commence before people even start thinking about shopping for turkeys, cranberry sauce or overpriced plane tickets to visit family they don’t even like, Thanksgiving will go the way of Arbor Day and wind up on the Island of Misfit Holidays.
Which is to say that it’s decidedly more difficult to get in the spirit of a play like A Tuna Christmas in the middle of November.