It's one of the surest harbingers of the holiday season: Every year around this time, theater companies start devoting themselves exclusively to Christmas plays.
American Stage is one of the first to get the holiday ball rolling. A Tuna Christmas opens this week and runs through Dec. 28.
The show chronicles the holiday activities of tiny Tuna, Texas, to which theatergoers were introduced in 1981's Greater Tuna.
Greater Tuna became one of the most popular plays in the history of American theater and has spawned three more Tuna shows. The success of the franchise helped spark a trend toward sequels, which had been rare in theater.
"I think people are accustomed to TV series and their spinoffs, and to movie sequels, so it was only natural that it would bleed into theater,'' said Matthew McGee, one of two actors who together play all of the 20-plus Tuna residents in the American Stage production.
McGee is no stranger to sequels. Two years ago, he was part of the cast of All the Great Books (Abridged) at American Stage, part of the series that began with The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). And he has performed in a Nunsense sequel with Candler Budd, with whom he is partners again in A Tuna Christmas. (McGee and Budd were also the entire cast of American Stage's The Big Bang in 2006.)
Plays that spawn sequels tend to be low-brow comedies. A Tuna Christmas is fast-paced and has its share of wacky humor and positive seasonal vibes, but it also has an edginess that shows like Nunsense lack.
"I think it's a very good play,'' McGee said. "A great play, actually. It has a little darkness to it. Christmas isn't a great time of year for all these people.''
And even though the characters are reprised from the original show, A Tuna Christmas is self-contained. People who have never spent time in Tuna, Texas, won't be lost.
"There may be two or three jokes that you won't get if you haven't seen Greater Tuna,'' McGee said. "But that's all. You won't have any trouble following what's going on. It's its own story, and in the end it's all wrapped up with a nice little Christmas bow.''