Look closely and you might detect that radio man Arles Struvie looks a little like weather man Harold Dean Lattimer, who looks like liberal Petey Fisk, who looks like socialite Vera Carp and who looks like wannabe cheerleader Charlene Bumiller. Look again and you’ll see that Bertha Bumiller bears a resemblance to the Reverend Spikes and Sheriff Givens and Yippy the dog.
It’s not the result of small-town inbreeding, though in the fictional hamlet of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, you might guess that comingling genetics were at work. Actually, it’s the energy and passion of two actors portraying the roles of 20 characters in a play that has been an off-Broadway hit for more than 20 years.
“(Greater Tuna is) essentially about the society of a small town,” said Paul J. Dancer, one of the two actors putting on the local production. “Everyone knows everyone. You turn a left blinker in an intersection and people want to know where you’re going because they know your every turn.”
Dancer’s co-star and the play’s director, Tony DeGeiso, has a less interpretive view on the work.
“There’s not a whole hell of a lot of social relevance in this show,” DeGeiso said with a laugh. “It was created as a loving tribute by two guys who grew up in small towns in Oklahoma and Texas and pulled various characters from people they were familiar with and created a show.”
“Greater Tuna” is the brainchild of three men: Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard. The play debuted in 1981 and in the original production Sears and Williams played all the characters. The full theater pedigrees of the original cast members, along with information on the Tuna spin-offs can be found at www.greatertuna.com.
In the northern Nevada run of “Tuna,” Dancer and DeGeiso carry on the tradition of the two-man production, playing all the roles — male or female or furry and four-legged. The play follows the lives of the 20 characters in the small town, exploring the emotion and ridiculousness of their lives over the course of a single day.
DeGeiso said he was approached by Funtime Theater, a Reno-area community theater company, to find a play that could be easily picked up and taken to small venues all over northern Nevada and California. When he chose “Greater Tuna,” DeGeiso got a little more than he bargained for, as he ended up both starring and directing. He acted in the play five or so years ago, so picking up the characters again was relatively simple, he said. DeGeiso has also directed 150 plays in his 20-year career, but this is the first time he has done both at the same time.
“I don’t know anybody who ever wants to do that,” DeGeiso said. “It really takes a different energy to act than to direct. Sometimes you have one or the other but rarely do you have both at same time ready to go.”
Not only does DeGeiso change roles from director to character, he changes characters 19 times throughout the play. Dancer has 28 costume changes, and both men credit their backstage costume assistants with making the show flow. Dancer said there is a lot of layering of clothes so the actors can simply tear off a layer and become a new person. Dancer said the layering helps him in the role of Charlene Bumiller, the overweight teen who wants to be a cheerleader.
“For some characters I just put on one or two items so by time walk around the set I’m the next character,” Dancer said. “That’s part of the magic of it. You’re not just fully another person with the voice and stance and attitude. There’s also the physical part of coming back suddenly and dressed differently. It’s the ‘wow’ factor.”
For Dancer, part of the challenge is not just learning so many characters, but learning lines. As an improvisational actor for much of his career, Dancer said it has been a new concept learning lines.
“When I find their voice I can start to do them physically and their mannerisms,” Dancer said. “To understand characters you have to understand the words they choose to use.”
“Greater Tuna” will be performed Friday and Saturday at the Studio on Fourth Street, 432 E. Fourth St. in Reno. Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for students and seniors. The show will play again on May 31 at the Lassen High School Theater in Susanville, Calif. Funtime Theater is seeking additional venues. For more information, go to www.funtimetheater.com or call Kathy Easly at 240-5762.