‘A Tuna Christmas’ comes to life on Arkansas Public Theatre stage

‘A Tuna Christmas’ comes to life on Arkansas Public Theatre stage

Imagine learning 500 lines for a play — give or take a few dozen. Sounds daunting enough, doesn’t it?

Then imagine those lines are spread over more than half a dozen characters, each with a different costume, a different wig, a different age and both male and female genders.

That Herculean challenge is what’s facing the two actors in the Arkansas Public Theatre production of “A Tuna Christmas.” It’s a sequel to “Greater Tuna,” but this time the holidays have come to the third-smallest town in Texas, and radio station OKKK personalities Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie are reporting on the town’s weird and wonderful Yuletide activities, including the hot competition in the annual lawn-display contest.

“‘A Tuna Christmas’ is and has been part of our holiday trilogy, which also includes ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,’” explains Ed McClure, artistic director for APT and the show’s director. “I love that it has a heart — that at the end of the day, and no matter what weighs you down, the spirit and feeling during the holidays can lift you up.

“The show is hilarious, and two great actors are at their peak with this performance.”

Michael Weir, whose “anchor character” is Thurston Wheelis, is well known to APT audiences for shows as diverse as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “A Comedy of Tenors” and most recently “The Music Man.” This is, however, his first experience in Tuna, Texas.

“I wanted to do ‘Tuna’ because playing multiple comic characters was going to be fun and challenging,” he says. “Also, I haven’t had too many chances in my performing life to play in a two-man show.

“Even though part of the comedy is that it is the same two men playing multiple ages and genders, the actors still have to make the characters authentic and believable for it to work,” Weir goes on. “There is kind of a fine line to bring the audience to think both ‘Ha, that’s the same guy playing the Sheriff and Aunt Pearl’ to ‘That Sheriff is so mean, but Aunt Pearl is such a sweetheart.’

“This may be a two-man show on the stage,” he adds, “but off stage there is a full crew dedicated to making sure dozens of quick costume changes happen to feed the illusion of a large cast of characters.”

Weir is joined by a newcomer to APT, Christopher Willard, who knows Tuna inside and out.

“I met Joe Sears (‘Tuna’ co-author) while acting in an amphitheater show he had written back in Oklahoma,” Willard explains. “I was introduced to the ‘Tuna’ characters at that time and fell in love with the shows and the challenge of doing quick-change theater. I thought it was the absolute greatest thing; why do one role in a show — when you can do 12?!

“Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to act in ‘Greater Tuna’ several times. This will be my third production of ‘A Tuna Christmas’ — which I feel is the best of the ‘Tuna’ series.

“I’ve always loved storytelling and have been involved with film and stage since high school,” Willard adds to his own story. “Recently, I was freelancing as an actor/director when the pandemic hit. I relocated to the area to take care of family during lockdown. I’d been wanting to get back onstage and to revisit this show again, so this was the perfect opportunity to make both things happen.”

In “A Tuna Christmas,” Willard plays six men, five women, one dog and one cat.

“It comes down to variety and specificity — in voice, physicality, movement — to bring these characters to life,” he says. “You have to be razor-focused from moment to moment, be always thinking quickly, and maintain the requisite energy to drive the comedy of the play. The show is hilarious, but poignant, too, so the actor has to be able to shift gears at a moment’s notice and shift back again, maintaining an even and steady ride.

“The show has a dozen jokes per page — on par with Neil Simon’s best work — but the real appeal is how the show depicts the people of Tuna, Texas, and in that treatment, you find its main themes: family, community, and sacrifice,” Willard concludes. “So many expectations are shouldered by families during the holidays — to give the perfect Christmas to loved ones, to make amends, to forge new paths, to help each other be better humans. We don’t always realize those expectations, but there’s honor in making the attempt.”



‘A Tuna Christmas’

WHEN — 8 p.m. Dec. 16-17; 2 p.m. Dec. 18

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST — $25-$50

INFO — arkansaspublictheatre.org/tickets or 631-8988

FYI — The Zephyr Blevins Gallery at the Victory is showing “Fish in Any Medium” during “A Tuna Christmas.”

Categories: Theater