From now until May 16th, the two-man comedy Greater Tuna continues its run at The Palms Theatre in Mesa as part of its Marquee Comedy Series. Two actors, Devon Nickel and Alan Craig, between them play more than twenty characters, all hailing from the fictional Texas town of Tuna.
Greater Tuna is the first in a short series of comedies that take stabs at Southern life and its attitudes where two men play the entire cast of both genders and various ages. Actor and stand-up comedian Alan Craig took time to answer a few production questions.
Would you describe Greater Tuna as an affectionate look at small town America or is it poking fun?
I think it’s actually a kind of combination of both. You certainly get to love these characters; they have lovable qualities, and there’s some poignancy in the play, but there’s also a lot of humor that, yes, could be taken offensively if the audience member doesn’t realize. There are some racist comments in the play, but normally they get laughs because people realize we’re having fun with these people, not promoting their ideas. At the same time, there are lovable characters in the play and I enjoy playing them.
There is occasionally a dark tone to the comedy. How does that show itself?
This play has a lot of facets to it. It’s a rich play in that way. There are some dark tones. Stanley, played by my co-star Devon Nickel, actually murders the local judge. Early on in the play when we go to the funeral for the judge, Stanley comes out and has a very dramatic monolog where he’s talking to the judge’s corpse, and he finally gets to the point where he says he may turn himself in someday. He makes the joke saying, “Now we’re even,” but then asks, “Why don’t I feel like it?” So, yeah, there is some darkness. There’s also a character that I play who’s a member of the KKK, Klan 249, but, again, for showing his ignorance, we’re not promoting his way of thinking. But there are some dark elements and I think that makes it enjoyable to watch and all the more enjoyable to play.
Have you played Greater Tuna before?
Yes, this is my third time doing it and I’ve played the same part every time. And when I say the same part, there are twenty parts to play, but it’s the Thurston Wheelis track that I play. It’s a great part for me. You find as an actor there are some plays out there that fit you like a glove and this one is mine. In fact, people have been nice in the Meet and Greet in the lobby after the curtain call, and many have commented that I’ve done this before, which is nice. I take that as a compliment. I could do this play for the long term. I was talking to my co-star Devon about it and I said, you know, if there was a play I could do on Broadway eight shows a week for a year I would do Greater Tuna.
Is it easy to adjust to new ideas from a new director or did you find yourself falling into old habits from previous productions with some of those characters?
Well, it was certainly great working with (director) J.R. Stuart, who is a dear friend of mine. I loved his new ideas. He bought fresh ideas to the table and I embraced them. He came up with a lot of funny routines that I do on stage, so I thank him for that. But he also encouraged me to, you know, bring my experience in having performed the roles previously, so it was a good working relationship.
Out of all the characters you play, which one was the hardest to pull off?
Oh, that’s a good question. I would say… erm… I would say… well, let me think. I would say Elmer Watkins. He’s the Klan member. He’s not hard to pull off convincingly, but I do cringe playing this character. He’s the darkest character that I play. He has lines where he’s praying to God and he says he still believes in making the world a better place, and then he pauses and says, for the right kind of people. He’s the hardest to play, but the audience seems to respond well to that character, so that’s good.
Is there a point when the jokes are no longer funny to you, or through repetition, do you ever forget what is funny and what is not?
Again, that’s a good question. You know, all these years later, having done this play, I still find it funny, I still laugh, and, again, working with J.R. Stuart, he brought some fresh ideas, and, you know, he’s also done Greater Tuna numerous times in his career as an actor and also a director, and I continue to laugh. During rehearsals we would laugh ‘till we cried. You know, if I didn’t find it funny I would probably put it on the shelf and stop doing it, but I still find it funny and I keep coming back to it.
Are you still getting laughs where you never expected one?
Yes, that’s true. Every audience has its own personality and we have experienced that with this production at The Palms. Recently, just last week, there was an audience laughing at lines and scenes where we had not experienced before, so the audience will always surprise you. It is great when they find new opportunities to laugh and it makes it fresh for us, but, you know, there are certainly the lines that you know are going to get the laughs and sometimes applause, and that’s great.
Can you tell within a few minutes if the audience is with you?
Absolutely, you do feel that. It’s great as an actor when you feel the audience is with you right away, but sometimes, especially with this play, you really have to work hard. In this play, right off the bat, there are some racist comments, some jokes in Act One, Scene One where you can feel the audience pausing. Those not familiar with the play and what it’s all about, you can feel them hesitating, but then as the play progresses they realize we’re making fun and that they can laugh. There’s a great line when I play Bertha Bumiller, the housewife. She’s being interviewed by a magazine reporter and I ask him, “What is the name of your magazine?” And he says, “Intellect.” And I look at the audience and say, “I don’t believe we have that here in Tuna.” And after that, the audience can see where it’s going and say, okay, we can enjoy this.
As a stand-up comedian, does your experience in that area help when doing a play like this?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. With my comedic timing, yeah. I studied some comedy writing and some improvisation at Second City in Chicago, and I’ve worked a lot as a comedian. I just feel that acting and working as a comedian are very similar, very close together, and I enjoy making people laugh, so, yeah, it helps me in this production, absolutely.
Your resume shows stand-up, plays and musical theatre. Is there one forum you lean towards more than the other?
I do love musical theatre a lot. Musical theatre is wonderful, but for some reason, if I had to choose, I would choose a play. I love comedy, but I enjoy doing dramas, also. I did Of Mice and Men, I played Lenny, and that’s a nice break from comedy. What do they say? Drama is hard but comedy is harder, something like that? It’s kind of true, comedy is hard, but I enjoy doing dramas, also.
And finally, what happens after Greater Tuna?
I go on more dates as a comedian. I’m going back to Bloomington, Indiana, so I’ll continue doing that. I’ve got some plays in the works for next fall that I haven’t signed a contract yet, so from here I’m doing stand-up.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for The Palms Theatre website.