There are 474 residents in the Texas town called Tuna, and you’ll get to meet a representative sampling of the population in “Greater Tuna” — even though the Williamston Theatre production has a cast of only two actors.
In less than two hours, Aral Gribble and Wayne David Parker put themselves through a sort of acting aerobics workout, changing costumes and altering their voices every few minutes to portray an assortment of oddballs: a pair of garrulous radio disc jockeys; a would-be high school cheerleader; the sanctimonious, dictionary-censoring vice president of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order; a hard-luck weatherman; the trigger-happy owner of an emporium specializing in used weapons, etc.
The frantic comedy by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard has been a box office goldmine for almost 30 years and has inspired three sequels: “Red, White and Tuna,” “A Tuna Christmas” and “Tuna Does Vegas.” Its swift pace and parade of kooky eccentrics can be cues for the performers to fall back on extreme exaggeration or campiness, but “Tuna” director Tony Caselli pushed the actors to find the honesty in the material instead.
“It could go completely ridiculous from beginning to end, and we played with that for a bit,” Caselli said. “Then we tried to take it in different directions, like, ‘Today, let’s make it an absolute ‘C.S.I.’ drama and see what happens. And (Gribble and Parker) would embrace that and then we’d sit down and say, ‘What did we learn from that?’ They’re both fearless, which is great.”
Gribble and Parker have both worked at Williamston before, but this is the first time they’ve worked opposite each other.
“We knew going in that these guys were going to play together great, because they’re really two of the funnier guys around,” Caselli said. “And they did: We had as much fun in rehearsal as they have onstage.”
The laughter is tinged with weirdness at certain points, as some of the Tuna citizens turn out to be, as they say in the South, “sick tickets.”
“That’s part of the challenge of this. There’s a couple of twists and turns where you hear the audience go “oooh,” and for a minute or three it’s less funny than ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’”
Beyond merely balancing the lighthearted and slightly darker bits of humor, however, Caselli wanted to give “Tuna” an emotional resonance that made it more than merely a series of jokes.
“We took the end of the show, which sort of comes on fast, and took the last few scenes of the show and tried to inject a lot of heart in them,” he said. “The last several scenes are all about everybody wrapping up their evening, calling it a day, and that’s a big part of life in a small town. The actors worked really hard to find some love and redemption, even in characters that might have not been very lovable up to that point.
“One of the things about small town life for me is not the ‘small-town mentality’ or ‘small-town politics,’ but the ‘we’re all in this together’ idea. That was one of the things we wanted to pull out and highlight in the play.”
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam, Williamston
Through Dec. 19. Previews at 8 p.m. tonight and Thursday, Nov. 18 (all seats $15)
8 p.m. Thursdays (no performance Nov. 25) and Fridays; 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; special 3 p.m. show Friday, Nov. 26
$24 Friday and Saturday evenings; $18 Thursdays; $20 matinees. (517) 655-7469