Q: What is a “tuna?”
A: Well, snort, obviously, a fish.
Q: And what else?
OK, here it is, confidentially from me to you: A tuna, my darlings, is a kind of prickly pear cactus found in the desert! And there really was once a town called Tuna … in the Texas desert. It doesn’t exist anymore—well, except it’s still “real” in the theater world.
And this brings us to Coyote Stageworks’ production of Greater Tuna at the museum’s Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, directed by the steady and inspired hand of Larry Raben. Written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, this production of the first play in the four-part Tuna series is one of the most unforgettable shows you will ever see. Why? Because here, the cast of about 20 characters is played by only two men!
It’s an acting tour de force. I have seen this same play done elsewhere with a cast of 20 actual actors, each playing just one part, so this production goes beyond genius. You want to see quick changes? Stars Chuck Yates and Alan Denny transform themselves in split seconds to move from one role to another—and not just by slapping on a different outfit or wig, but by totally changing. More about this later.
The Josh Clabaugh set that greets us is moodily lit by Danny Durand. A prototypical Western setting of three barn-tall plank flats with angled roofs is sparsely decorated by a Lone Star, a pair of Longhorn horns, a dusty old Texaco sign, two tables with chairs … and, under the spotlight at center stage, a huge free-standing console radio so old-fashioned it will date you if you recognize it. It is 1978, and we are in the “third smallest town in Texas”: Greater Tuna.
The stage-right flat contains a midsection which revolves to create the background for radio station OKKK to start the show. Everything is broadcast live, and we open with two local yokels smart-talking their way through the morning news, giving the audience instant belly laughs. Thurston Wheelis and Arlis Struvie (not made-up radio names, clearly) give us rapid-fire patter and signature banter before announcing a weather forecast from a roving reporter.
Now here is where it gets interesting: Both of our actors are already busy playing the announcers. Who is going to be the weather person? Well … with timing that would make a magician turn emerald with envy, throughout the play, an actor vanishes and then re-appears as another character with no resemblance to the one he was just playing. And just as quickly, he returns to update the prior role, or even goes on to a different one! This happens over and over; each actor plays 10 different parts, and he plays many of them multiple times! Yes! They play bratty kids. They are in drag as the ladies of the town. They play a cliché-spouting preacher, a sullen youth just emerged from reform school, a sheriff, a grandma, the town drunk … practically everyone in Tuna!
We find out about the relationships, the secrets, the ambitions, the shame, the problems, the vanities of these characters—and they will capture your heart even as you laugh. The costuming deserves mention, as some were hoarded from Coyote Stageworks’ first-ever Tuna show back in 2009, with Alan Denny and Chuck Yates then playing these roles and creating the costumes. Wardrobe master Frank Cazares and Jim Lapidus have updated and augmented them. And the wigs! Cazares has created some of the most outrageous and hilarious looks ever.
However, it is all about the acting. Wigs and costumes certainly help change an actor physically, no question, and they have simplified their labors by miming the props. But both Yates and Denny take this show to a higher level by transforming themselves for each role in ways that chameleons only dream of. Each voice was unique. They grew tall or shrank; they gestured differently; their postures and spines were different; they changed their very face shapes—they seemed to even change their skin textures. They breathed in different ways. This is beyond acting—it is becoming someone else, inhabiting roles so completely that the audience could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a huge cast of actors. I’ve played multiple roles in a show, and it is an enormous challenge—but it was nothing like seeing the accomplishments of these two amazing thespians. This is what actors yearn to do all their lives—and here it is, performed perfectly. There is considerable physicality involved (wait until you see the high school cheerleader—yikes) as well as an intellectual process of creating the characters plus the emotions of playing them, but in this show, you will see the actual spirit of each character on display. That’s how deeply mined this script has been by Denny and Yates.
You could tell by the frequent spontaneous applause and the waves of laughter that the audience totally enjoyed the show, but there were also moments of breathless anticipation when we all cared very much about what was happening. There’s not much of a storyline, but we learn about small-town life and the sometimes horribly misguided attempts to better or control their tiny world. The radio blithely plays Tammy Wynette or Patty Page or Hank Snow, set against the heart-wrenching struggles of Petey Fisk from the Humane Society or that innocent-looking but murderous grandmother. Contrasts.
This is a show not to be missed, and it so deserves the standing ovation it earns. Every actor should see it as a master class in classical technique. Non-actors should see it because it’s such great fun and an extraordinary experience. And it’s not just laughing at hillbilly silliness; it twangs your heartstrings like a good country tune.
And you, personally, can feel superior, knowing what a tuna really is.
Greater Tuna, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.