By Will Broaddus
---- — There are more dressers than actors in “A Tuna Christmas,” which is at the Salem Theatre Company tonight and Saturday.
It takes four people to help two performers make 23 costume changes, so they can portray 22 different characters in the play.
“We’ve got an incredible set of dressers backstage,” said Mitch Kyle, one of the actors. “They’re ripping clothes off me, and I don’t know how it happens, it’s so fast.”
The comedic send-up of Christmas in fictional Tuna, Texas, “the third-smallest town” in the state, is one of three sequels to “Greater Tuna,” which was first staged in 1981 in Austin, Texas.
As in the first play, the action in “A Tuna Christmas” centers on radio station OKKK, where disc jockeys Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis discuss local news and events.
“They stayed true to how offbeat and wacky the people in this town are,” said David Allen George, the play’s director. “But ‘Christmas’ is a better show, because there’s more point to it.
“The holiday and how one deals with it make the audience a bit more identified with it, and not just entertained by the craziness of these people in town.”
Most of the characters in “Tuna” are disappointed in Christmas to some degree, because it fails to live up to their expectations, George said.
“I think it’s one of those things,” he said. “You didn’t get what you wanted; the car breaks down.”
But George expects audiences will be more than satisfied by the performances by Kyle and Bob Karish, who possess unique skills.
“I always look at it in terms of the number of transformations they have to do,” he said. “A lot of actors can’t do that.”
The range of characters they have to play, which include both men and women of all ages, means these roles are suited for actors with plenty of life experience.
“How are you going to find the lives of people in their 60s?” George asked. “You don’t have to act this; you just have to find the other lives in you.
“The authors did it when they were in their 30s, and they kept doing it, and it got better as they got older.”
Kyle describes himself as a character actor, and he appeared in “Scenes From American Life” by A.R. Gurney Jr. when he was a student at Keene State.
Like the “Tuna” plays, it involved multiple roles, which he said was valuable preparation for this production.
“I played everything from a 5-year-old to a 90-year-old man,” he said. “I played 11 characters.”
George said that in addition to possessing some maturity, actors in “Tuna” should be willing to take risks.
“These two guys can improv like nobody’s business,” he said. “They were brave enough to take more risks than I’d seen from other gentlemen.
“A lot of actors don’t play with their voices that much. They don’t want to grimace. They don’t have the knack to mug, the ability to make a face, make a voice and become somebody else. I was lucky I had two comics.”
George, a professor of theater at Salem State, appeared in “Greater Tuna” when it was produced in the university’s summer theater program in the summer of 2012.
He was approached to direct this production by John Fogle, artistic director of Salem Theatre Company, who had seen George’s performance.
“John Fogle and I are friends from way back,” he said. “The moment he said ‘Tuna,’ I said, ‘Yes.’”
As in “Greater Tuna,” the play mixes affection for small town life and characters with skepticism about their lack of tolerance.
“They’re deep in Texas; they’ve never left town,” George said. “They live among the same 250 people who think alike, eat alike. But they’re all ignorant. So, you just say, ‘You’re an ignorant person.’”
If you go What: "A Tuna Christmas," by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard When: Thursday, Dec. 19, and Saturday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 p.m. (Friday sold out). Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St. Information: Tickets $10 with student ID, $20 seniors, $25 general admission at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111. For more information, call 978-790-8546.