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One More Tuna 

Close to the original recipe

Like thousands of other Charlotte theatergoers, I've gotten accustomed to the ignorant residents of Tuna, Texas, by way of the Charlotte Rep/Flat Rock Theatre co-production of A Tuna Christmas that has invaded Booth Playhouse four times over the past decade. But how can one Tuna be enough?Finally, our great tuna hunger was addressed when the 20th anniversary edition of Greater Tuna began its national tour by making its first stop in Belk Theater. At last we could see the birth of Bertha Bumiller with Joe Sears, who originated the role -- and nine others -- in Tuna's first Off-Broadway stint back in October 1982.

Seeing Sears before everyone else on the nationwide Tuna tour was the good news. The bad news was not seeing Sears' onstage partner, Jaston Williams, playing his half of the 20 original characters. Williams joins the tour down the road apiece. Meanwhile, the third member of the original Tuna team, Ed Howard, directed newcomer Martin Burke for his first turn in Tuna. So everything was close to the original recipe.

Catching the original Tuna just three months after the Rep's latest version of the sequel, we could reaffirm how masterfully our homegrown production -- under Terry Loughlin's direction -- has preserved the flavor of the Sears/Williams/Howard characters.

Sears' performance was less hammed-up than Rep's Michael Edwards', yet his Bertha was very similar in her midlife physicality and motherly edginess. Adding more girth -- and disdaining Edwards' baroque limp -- Sears' take on Aunt Pearl Bumiller is more winsome. So is her role in Greater Tuna, where she's bedeviled by more urgent, trivial problems and endowed with more murderous malice.

Overall, Greater Tuna cuts more deeply with its satire, uncovering more of the small town's genial bigotry and favoring us with a full-fledged meeting of The Smut Snatchers of the New Order. But while there's no shortage of belly laughs all evening long, there's less of a storyline, less skillful interweaving of the dozen scenes, and no plot twists.

Though I missed the usual Petey Fisk lisp, Burke was best as Tuna's resident Humane Society wacko, particularly when vexed by an aggressive Chihuahua he couldn't unload over the radio. Vera Carp, the prim matron who chairs the Smut Snatchers meeting until the belated arrival of Rev. Spikes, glowed with newfound vanity.

Kevin Rupnik's set design paled in comparison to Jim Gloster's rustic handiwork for Charlotte Rep. But Root Choyce's lighting beautifully framed every scene, none more effectively than KKK chieftain Elmer Watkins' bulletins, and Linda Fisher's costumes -- whether drab, trashy, or tasteless -- were a constant hoot.

Children's Theatre has totally reimagined one of its greatest comedy triumphs, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. The original all-adult production of 1994 won Loaf Theatre Awards for director Alan Poindexter and actor Mark Sutton, who played the title role. Transporting the stage adaptation of Judy Blume's children's classic to Spirit Square, director Jill Bloede has switched to child actors for her leading antagonists -- and decreed more opulent values from production designer Bob Croghan. Gone are the hilariously flimsy cartoon sets, replaced by a new concept of solid colors and smooth shapes, evocative of wooden picture puzzles and pop-up books. Croghan's costumes and Gary Sivak's sound design take us back to the blissful superficialities of 50s sitcoms.

Eighth grader Justin Louiseau takes over as Peter Hatcher, the hapless suburbanite who is overlooked by his parents, tyrannized by smarty classmate Sheila Tubman, and tormented by the notorious Fudge. It's an adult-sized role with plenty of narrative spoken directly to the audience. Even when struggling slightly with his lines, Louiseau exhibits precocious poise. Fourth grader Gaines Hargrove plays the horrific younger brother.

The new concept works well to humanize Peter and heighten our empathy, so your favorite ankle-biter might find this production more meaningful than the 1994 version.

Yet for parents chauffeuring their offspring to Spirit Square, there's no replacing the comedy of adults reveling in the pettiness of fourth grade and regressing totally into babyhood. Nine seasons ago, even the kiddies in the audience yowled with delight at the spectacles that Scott Helm, Tim Grant, and Bloede made of themselves.

The current edition is amusing. But aside from Jennie, the fearsome biter at Fudge's birthday party, nobody at Spirit Square will be wetting their pants.

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