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Hooo-boy… Christmas is just around the corner, yet the residents of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas — even counting “greater” Tuna — are so low on holiday cheer it won’t wet the dipstick.

The Christmas Phantom’s sabotaging radio OKKK’s annual lawn-display competition. Only Vera Carp, who’s dominated the event 14 years straight (and who’s using live sheep this year, the cheat), has been spared so far. Even though she’s the logical candidate, most people think the phantom is Bertha Bumiller’s disturbed boy Stanley. When told he has a lot on his mind lately, what with his parole and all, Stanley’s twin sister Charlene replied, “That’s impossible.”

Even though their leader, Reverend Spikes, is still in prison, the Smut Snatchers of the New Order promise not only to shut off the local community theater’s electricity (the SS’s still riled about that Medea the director relocated in Yazoo City), they want to ban the song “Silent Night” because of its indecent line about “round, young virgins.”

“Censorship’s as American as apple pie,” one says.

Chain-smoking Didi Snavely’s celebrating the holidays with a “Peace on Earth” sale at her used-weapons store. “Wouldn’t you rather shoot somebody,” she asks customers, “than watch ’em run off with your new toaster?” One of the few permanent fixtures in Tuna, if you don’t count galloping dysfunction, is her radio spot: “Didi’s Used Weapons: if we cain’t kill it, it’s immortal.”

Garrison Keillor created Lake Wobegon, a warm and fuzzy fictional town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard’s Tuna series (Greater Tuna; A Tuna Christmas; Red, White and Tuna; and Tuna Does Vegas) satirizes a fictional town where the opposite’s the case and where woe plus meanness somehow generates laughter.

A Tuna Christmas wraps a mystery (the phantom’s identity) around an enigma: what’s stopping Tuna’s nastier denizens from going over to Didi’s, loading up on assault rifles and discount hand grenades, and lighting up the town? A smidge of civility or a not-too-distant tipping point?

When they perform, Williams and Sears play 10 or 11 roles each. They’ve been so memorable for so long, they’re almost an impossible act to follow. In Compass Theatre’s current Tuna Christmas, however, Fred Harlow and Don Loper come pretty darn close.

Like Sears, Harlow is a large man. He plays, among others, Bertha Bumiller and Sheriff Givens (who “believes in old-fashioned jails”). Like Williams, Loper is a slender man and plays, among others, Vera Carp, the town snoot, and Stanley Bumiller. If you put Loper and Harlow in mid-20th-century sport coats, slacks, and black bowler hats, they could pass for Laurel and Hardy.

Born to play the Tuna series, Harlow shows his impressive range as dog-hating Pearl Burrus, as flamboyant theater director Joe Bob Lipsey, and as Didi’s amorphous husband, R.R., through whose booze-marinated brain dance visions of UFOs. Though he could make more vocal differentiations among his characters, Loper scores as Didi Snavely, the walking cancer stick, and as poor Petey Fisk, humane society saint and the loneliest star in Texas.

***

Stage versions of Dickens’s Christmas Carol come in large and small packages. The North Coast Rep’s chamber piece, adapted by Jacqueline Goldfinger, may rank among the swiftest, clocking in around 85 minutes. Although it often has a White Rabbit, “I’m late” feel, the Stephen Elton–directed production has the virtue of being more accessible than most for young attention spans.

It also has the virtue of Ron Choularton in the lead. Choularton’s white-haired, crotchety Scrooge is a clear, deceptively simple creation. The pace allows for an unimpeded arc from the railer against Christmas to the three-ghost intervention-rehab to the joyous “Founder of the Feast.” The intimate North Coast stage also lets Choularton build from within — no melodramatic excesses, just a life-sized curmudgeon opening a frozen heart to his greatest fear: living in the moment.

In supporting roles, Von Schauer is a truly tormented Jacob Marley and a Henry VIII–sized Ghost of Christmas Present, among others. Well-spoken Rachel Van Wormer and Brian Mackey (stars of Ion Theatre’s recent Bash), Geno Carr, and Susan Denaker also contribute. As does Marty Burnett’s flexible set, which includes a turntable, a mobile four-poster and, on the rear wall, a Thames-eye view of London through a fog.

A Tuna Christmas by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard
Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Josh Hyatt; cast: Fred Harlow, Don Loper; scenic design, Christian Lopez; costumes, Lisa Burgess; lighting, Mitchell Simkovsky
Playing through December 27; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-688-9210.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Jacqueline Goldfinger
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by Stephen Elton; cast: Ron Choularton, Geno Carr, Von Schauer, Rachael Van Wormer, Michael Zlotnik, John Tessmer, Susan Denaker, Brian Mackey, Austyn Myers, Molly O’Meara, Alexis Young, Rachel Dovsky, Karli Stults; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Michelle Hunt Souza; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Chris Luessmann
Playing through December 27; Wednesday through Friday at 7:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 6:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055.

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