In 'Tuna,' two take on 20 roles

Through a series of funny vignettes, a pair of actors populate a tiny Texas town.

Published August 24, 2007

The Show Palace Dinner Theatre is taking off on an altogether new tack with the warm-hearted comedy, Greater Tuna, opening Aug. 31 for a four-week engagement.

The play has 20 male and female characters. But it has only two actors doing them all - Show Palace favorites Matthew McGee and Candler Budd, who set summer attendance records as The Odd Couple in 2006.

"It's different, it's really different," said Show Palace co-owner Nick Sessa.

Set in Tuna, Texas, the third smallest town in the state, it's a series of vignettes that weave together the stories of the denizens of that quirky little town.

"I think we do 27 costume changes," said McGee, who, like Budd, plays 10 men, women, children and animals.

Linking the stories are radio announcers Thurston Wheelis (McGee) and Arles Struvie (Budd), who sprawl at a table before their imaginary microphones chewing on the day's news from Tuna and the rest of the world, but only as it relates to Tuna.

Without any fanfare, they glide into the show's other characters, the goal being to make the audience feel as though they're seeing different people in each scene and that the characters they've just watched are still back there behind the backdrop waiting to reappear at any moment.

"There's an awful lot of good stuff in the show," McGee said. "Some is sinister, some is heartbreaking." But it's all in good fun.

Charlene Bumiller (Budd), for instance, longs to be a high school cheerleader, but she just doesn't seem to have the right stuff. Petey Fisk (Budd) is a soft-hearted animal lover who gets in trouble for being an over-enthusiastic "dog-pusher" to the local kids, whose moms might not necessarily want another of Petey's pooches at their dinner table.

Bertha (McGee) is one mom who is willing to resort to desperate means to assure that Petey doesn't pawn off another dog on her mentally disturbed offspring, Stanley (Budd).

The challenge for McGee and Budd is to make each character real and distinct.

"We're going to honor the script," McGee said. "We don't want to ad-lib too much, though some (of the script) sounds like it is (ad-lib)."

McGee has high praise for writers Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard, who created Greater Tuna - "where the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies" - more than two decades ago in Austin, Texas. Since then, it has played hundreds of theaters in the United States and Europe, including a seven-year run at a San Francisco venue and two command performances at the White House. It was made into an HBO movie and has spawned two sequels, A Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna, that some critics say are even better than the blockbuster original.

"These are great writers who really created something special," McGee said.

Budd, who just finished a gig in New York in the offbeat comedy, Swim Shorts, agrees.

"The script is hilarious," he said. "I have always wanted to do this show."

In fact, he and McGee just missed their chance when they both entered Valdosta State University in Georgia.

"We were freshmen at Valdosta, and they had done it the year before," Budd said.

Both actors have been brushing up their accents to play the roles of Texans.

"Our accents have gotten a lot thicker," McGee said.

'Greater Tuna'

What: Greater Tuna, a comedy-farce.

Where: Show Palace Dinner Theatre, 16128 U.S. 19, Hudson.

When: Aug. 31 to Sept. 23. Shows are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (doors open at 6 p.m. for buffet and cash bar); 3 p.m. Sundays (doors open at 1 p.m.); and 1:15 p.m. some Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (doors open at 11:30 a.m.).

Tickets: Dinner and show, $44; show only, $32.95; ages 12 and younger, $26.45 and $21.45, all plus tax and tip. Call (727) 863-7949 in west Pasco; toll-free elsewhere at 1-888-655-7469.