Wayside's 'Tuna' portrays small town with big laughs
By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
MIDDLETOWN -- Wayside Theatre's upcoming show, "Greater Tuna," appeals to audiences, especially those in the rural South, according to the cast and crew.
Last performed at Wayside in 2002, it's a favorite in the Northern Shenandoah Valley as well, and one that Director Warner Crocker hopes will close out the theater's 50th anniversary season with a roar of laughter.
"This show is just flat-out funny, and it's giving way to enjoying two wonderful actors," Crocker says. "We're recommending this show as a PG. [Age] 13 and up is probably a good thing," he says.
Actor Eddie Staver III says he's never laughed so much during rehearsals, and Crocker agrees, "It's kind of hard for us to keep a straight face."
"Greater Tuna" takes place in Tuna, Tex., a small town with an even smaller population -- "There's probably about 50," said Staver, who plays half the roles in the play. Greg Pragel plays the other half.
"It's a small town, so that means everybody knows everyone," Crocker says. Two memorable characters are Arles and Thurston, who host a show on OKKK radio, Crocker says.
"Through that we meet the little town of Tuna," he says.
"Basically it's just explaining these folks, these residents of Tuna, and how they get through life," he says.
Approaching the barrage of roles in this show might seem overwhelming for some actors, but for Pragel, it's nothing short of entertaining.
"Fun" is what he calls it. "Fun, challenging. You know, you just have to dive in head first."
He could approach each role in several ways, Pragel says, but his plan usually is to "go for the strongest choice. You hope that you're going to land on something really solid and really funny," he says.
"It's a show about the people, but it's not just a show about the characters," he says. "The dialogue is so funny as well."
One actor will exit, and, often, 15 seconds later reemerge as someone else.
Part of the fun becomes wondering how quickly the actor will return from off stage and who he'll be when he does. It adds expectation to the entertainment value, Crocker says.
In fact, he says, the show is like two worlds operating at once -- the one the audience sees playing out onstage, and the one behind the scenes, where the actors prepare in a frenzied rush before hurrying back out on stage between sketches.
"It's an entirely different show happening behind the set," Crocker says. Backstage there will be four crew members called dressers, whose job it is to help the actors switch clothes in mere seconds. Most shows, even the most complicated, have only two dressers, Crocker says.
"These guys are doing something that the ancient Greeks made famous" -- playing the roles of men and women -- "and that's a convention that audiences the world over have loved, so that's a big part of it," Crocker says. "We like to call this show 'Wigs and Shoes.'"
But with laughter comes other challenges, especially in a script with only two actors playing 20 characters.
"You are setting yourself up to something going potentially wrong," Crocker says. "In a quick change, these shows have a very similar spirit to ... the Carol Burnette Show, and that kind of thing."
Or "Saturday Night Live," Staver says.
Pragel agrees, "It's one of those shows we'll have to a T. But it's never going to be the same."
The show is scripted, he says, so "You stick to that because that is what you're doing. It's not about the improv. But, if something happens, you have to live truthfully to it ... because it's untruthful to just keep going and act like that didn't just happen."
"Greater Tuna" is the first in a series, which continues with "A Tuna Christmas," "Red, White and Tuna" and "Tuna Does Vegas."
"It's become quite a franchise," Pragel says.
Though Staver has never before performed "Greater Tuna," he has experience with quick backstage persona alterations, having portrayed 30 separate characters in the one-man show "Fully Committed."
"This is a new challenge," he says, "because the characters in this show are a lot more rooted." Also, "Fully Committed" was set in New York, with characters from various places. Playing a cast of characters all from the same town, all with the same dialect, is totally different.
"[It's] a new challenge making characters distinct and different but from the same community."
"All the characters in the play are real extreme too," Staver adds. "It's like a master acting class. They all are real people."
Though Pragel and Staver look to the script for insight into how to perform some roles, other roles are more obvious because of the people they are.
"A child's going to be a child," Greg said.
Staver adds, "A dog's going to bark."
The playwright has formed characters that are iconic, Crocker says. Like the weather forecaster, Harold Dean.
"He's always on location in the middle of the storm, and I think that's part of the fun ... because Greg and Eddie get to essay these people," Crocker says.
"Every small town, heck every big town, has its personalities," Crocker says. "The same people follow you as different people."
The people of Tuna, "They don't know much outside of Tuna," Staver says.
"This is what they know," Pragel says. This, perhaps, is what makes the sequels work so well, he says. The audience wants to see the characters in different and new situations.
When he performed as part of "Greater Tuna" in Tennessee, he played to a sold-out audience in a theater where the tickets were $200-$300.
In the South, he says, "People can see these people and say, 'Oh, that's my mama,' -- that's people I know."
"I think two actors playing all these [roles] ... basically points to the fact that we're all the same," Crocker says.
"Acting is living truthfully in an imaginary circumstance," he says. "Most of the props are imagined in this show. There's so many levels to this show."
Wayside Theatre will present "Greater Tuna" from Saturday through April 8. Performances will be Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$30 for adults and $10 for children ages 5-17. Discounts are available for full-time students, seniors and groups. For more information, call 869-1776 or visit www.waysidetheatre.org.