|By Mary C. Cusack|
Expert comic timing keeps Williamston’s ’Greater Tuna’ fresh
While it isn’t the greatest show Williamston Theatre has done, “Greater Tuna” is a purty dang good distraction from holiday stress. Director Tony Caselli cast well with Williamston veterans Aral Gribble and Wayne David Parker, who portray 19 of the 474 residents of Tuna, Texas — plus their dogs.
The script may inspire mixed feelings in audiences. The humor is based on stereotypes of small-town Texans, who are portrayed as dim-witted, bigoted, and hypocritical members of the ultra-right. They are the caricatures that we expect them to be.
Still, stereotypes are often funny when there is a grain of truth in them. In truth, these characters aren’t unique to Texas, but exist in the small towns that surround Greater Lansing as well.
All in all, this is a warmhearted, affectionate skewering. Either the characters are given some backstory that fleshes them out as realistic people, or the actors take the time to exhibit a moment of real human emotion.
Once again, Williamston takes full advantage of its limited space, as the two actors disappear behind or offstage, reemerging as a new character, often from a different point of entry than their exit.
The speed at which Gribble and Parker make these transitions is impressive, especially considering the costume changes they make each time. While the difference in costumes between characters is minimal, it is still a feat of coordination and timing.
They say that costumes make the man, and, in this case, the women as well. While audiences need visual cues to help know when actors are making role changes, the costumes must also help the actors embody each new body. Simple elements such as a mullet wig versus a long curly one help Gribble easily leap from juvenile delinquent Stanley Bumiller to his twin sister, Charlene. Her Dallas Cowboys cheerleader vest helps, too. Parker distinguishes two tough Texan women by grace of a grayer wig and glasses.
The true key in effectively selling multiple characters, though, is in body language and voice. Gribble has proven himself to be the master of the multiple-role performance, including his previous turns in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." His joy at getting to switch between roles like righteous bitch Vera Carp to good-hearted Humane Society dweeb Petey Fisk is obvious.
Parker is the more subtle of the two in creating different characters. With a squint and a pose he makes local bigot Elmer Fisk markedly different than local drunk R.R. Snavely, who walks as if he put on wet Wranglers and let them shrink-dry on him in the hot Texas sun. His best role is that of Napoleonic Sheriff Givens, who turns even a traffic ticket into the Inquisition. Parker’s standout tour de force occurs when the oft-mentioned Reverend Spikes finally makes an appearance.
The Reverend is mentioned throughout the play, reinforcing the idea that despite local government, the good Reverend is the one who really runs the town. Spikes arrives to deliver a eulogy that could be titled “Every Cliché Ever Told,” exposing himself for the charismatic yet ridiculous charlatan whom he really is.
For those looking to make “Tuna” even greater fun, one recommendation is to request a seat in the first few rows of the center section. Without spoiling the surprise, let’s just say that with his fearless physicality, Gribble guarantees that the seats are all that they’re cracked up to be.