Small-town humor provokes big laughter with two-man tour de farce ‘Greater Tuna’
by Lily Dayton, Monterey County Herald
Y’all are invited to the small town in the big state where people owe more money on their tractors than on their cars and where the four seasons are known as almost summer, summer, still summer and hunting season.
The comedy show “Greater Tuna” will be featured at the Golden State Theatre in downtown Monterey tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 p.m.
This production, presented by Artbeat, features the two actors and quick-change artists Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne portraying 22 different characters through a series of rapid-fire costume changes. All of these changes will take place in less than 10 seconds.
Ed Howard, one of the three original writers of this comedy as well as the director of its Broadway production, is directing the show that will appear tonight in Monterey.
Howard and his friends Jaston Williams and Joe Sears wrote this comedy in 1981. It quickly became a cult favorite in Austin, then moved on to the Alley Theatre in Houston, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and an extended run at Circle in the Square on Broadway in New York.
Described as “deliriously funny” by Alan Ulrich from the San Francisco Examiner, the story takes place in the (fictional) third-smallest town in West Texas.
It’s a typical day in town until the local judge is found dead in a woman’s one-piece swimsuit. This starts a chain of events that interrupts all of the characters’ lives, creating havoc, mishaps and loads of laughter.
When asked what makes this show so tremendously funny, actor Holbrook’s immediate response was “Men in dresses.”
Fellow actor Payne followed this up with, “What makes this show funny is that small towns are small towns wherever you go. Every town has its own local busybody, the woman older than Egypt who everyone’s terrified of and the local delinquent often discussed at the dinner table. The humor comes from the identification. And then of course there are the men in dresses.”
These two actors have a playful camaraderie between them, so it comes as a surprise that they didn’t know each other before they started their first “Tuna” tour last February.
“We met at the first rehearsal,” said Holbrook. “We had two weeks to put the show on and we just took off like old friends. Now it’s hard to imagine doing this show with anyone else.”
Holbrook commented that the rehearsal process was a challenge for the two of them with roughly a dozen characters a piece — two hours of material for only two actors; but he said that the quick character changes have become second nature to them both during the show.
To help with the quick-change process psychologically, they each have their own tricks.
“Jeff has his whole dressing room routine, but my biggest trick is looking at what shoes I’m wearing,” said Payne.
Holbrook described his dressing room routine. “I sit in the dressing room and listen to music that makes me happy. Tom Petty or the Wallflowers or basically any good, twangy acoustic music that makes me think of Texas. The music relaxes me — it’s Pavlovian. If you go on stage all tense, you’re dead.”
“Almost all the costume changes happen off-stage,” said Payne. “We have two amazing dressers back stage that work twice as hard as we do. It’s an absolutely full change — for example, going from a reverend in a full suit with a wig and a moustache, then walking on stage as a sheriff with a gun, holster, sunglasses and hat.”
Though Holbrook considers himself an actor before a comedian, he’s very comfortable in a comedic role because he’s previously acted in many comedy shows (including the film “Morris the Cat”).
“I think stand-up would be fun, but I’ve never done it,” he said. “I love acting — and comedies are fun.”
Payne considers himself a writer who acts. “I primarily work as a playwright and I just finished my first book — a memoir of my mid-20s, “Necessary Luxuries.” During this time, I was diagnosed with cancer and went through treatment three times. Then, after the last treatment, I took off with just a suitcase and traveled to Scotland. The book takes off when I return to America with nothing but my suitcase.”
He credits the life-changing experience of cancer diagnosis and the subsequent roller coaster of treatment as giving him a new lease on life. “This gave me a new appreciation for taking risks and seizing opportunities that are out there, being aware of what you can live without. This tour is an extension of that experience. (Before cancer treatment) I never would have set everything aside and jumped into a 16-passenger van.”
Payne said that the humor in “Greater Tuna” is appropriate for adults and older children.
“Not that there is any material that would be inappropriate for young kids, but the comedy is geared toward 12 and up. Still, we have had 8 or 10-year-olds in the audience that were cracking up.”