The Texas community known as Tuna may be sparsely populated, but what it lacks in numbers is more than made up for by the outlandish personalities who call this area home. There's Elmer Watkins, head of the local chapter of the KKK, and Helen Bedd, a waitress at the Tastee Kreme Diner.
Other residents include R.R. Snavely, the town drunk and UFOlogist, Stanley Bumiller, a young man just released from reform school, and Vera Carp, the town snob and vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order.
Along with more than a dozen other characters, all of whom are equally peculiar, this eclectic group makes up the cast of “Greater Tuna,” Joe Sears' and Jaston Williams' popular comedy that has become one of the most frequently performed plays in the United States.
The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre will bring its 2012-13 season to a close with “Greater Tuna,” the first of four comedies that spoof Southern life and attitudes in the third-smallest town in Texas.
“When we did ‘A Tuna Christmas' (in 2009), it became the most popular production in the theater's history,” said artistic director Donald Jordan. “The run was completely sold out. Audiences kept asking us when we were going to do it or another ‘Tuna' play so we thought we'd go back to where it all began.”
Although the characters who populate “Greater Tuna” number more than 20, they're all performed by two actors. Sears and Williams, who toured the four “Tuna” shows for more than two decades, scripted the shows so that the lightning-quick costume changes never stopped the action.
“That's a show in itself,” said Jonathan Beck Reed, a popular local actor who will share the stage with his longtime friend Jordan in the City Rep production. “If you're doing your job properly, it looks like nothing is happening. But backstage, it's frenetic. Everything has to be choreographed.”
While theatrical quick-change artistry often involves a simple costume change, “Greater Tuna” requires elaborate transformations that involve costuming, wigs, fashion accessories and the occasional prop.
“Because the changes are so amazingly quick, you have to trust the dressers to put the right things on you,” Jordan said. “We're often thinking about our next entrance and sometimes we're carrying on discussions. You have to make sure the story keeps being propelled forward.”
With dozens of costume changes required during the course of a production, every actor who has performed in any of the “Tuna” shows has experienced the occasional mishap: a loose wig, a shirt or blouse that didn't get fully buttoned or a mismatched costume.
“When Don and I did ‘A Tuna Christmas,' he was playing Joe Bob Lipsey, a theater director,” Reed said. “Don had on an open Hawaiian and came into this restaurant where I was playing a waitress. Shortly into the scene, he had a costume malfunction.
“His chest just popped out and I thought I had to address the situation so I just kept making stuff up. I finally said, ‘You're exposed.' In another production, I was playing disc jockey Arles Struvie. He wears a Don Ameche mustache but I couldn't find it. I very quickly cut out a piece of duct tape and put it on so I could start the show.
“During the scene that followed, I noticed that my mustache was stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I managed to retrieve it without anybody noticing but when I tried to put it on, it was stuck to my finger. I messed around with it for a while before finally just peeling it off and placing it on my lip. The audience howled. It's always a joy when you give them license to laugh.”
When one considers the themes and attitudes put forth in “Greater Tuna,” a place where “the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies,” it's not surprising to learn that Southern audiences have little trouble identifying with the show's characters.
“The rest of the country thinks ‘Greater Tuna' is a comedy but we think of it as a documentary,” Jordan said, laughing. “When I was growing up, I went to Thanksgiving dinner with most of these people. In this part of the country, we know how true the situations are.
“And for as deceptively simple as it seems, it's socially relevant. The issues that they're talking about are things we still deal with today. The theatricality of ‘Greater Tuna' is the essence of great live theater. There are just two actors, it happens in real time and there are no special effects.
“With the transformations that take place, there is that great sense of illusion. Theater is the art form that is the closest to life. ‘Tuna' offers two hours of laughing out loud and who doesn't need a little bit of that in their lives today?”