GREENFIELD – Two people, 20 characters — and a whole heck of a lot of costume changes.
Keeping track of it all — that’s going to be the hard part, costars of the two-man show, Greater Tuna, agreed.
Grant Newton and Brent Hager, who lead the Ricks-Weil Theatre Co.’s comedy running March 31-April 9, are on stage for most of the two-hour performance, and when they’re not on stage, they’re going through rapid-fire costume (and character) changes behind the scenes.
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The action in “Greater Tuna” opens with Thurston Wheelis (Hager) and Arles Struvie (Newton) at the microphones of Radio OKKK. Their talk-radio program features a parade of local small-town characters discussing topics such as the winning entry in the American Heritage Essay Contest — entitled “Human Rights, Why Bother?” — to a swarm of locusts moving in on the community from Louisiana. The play visits several locations including the humane society, a funeral parlor and a local café, with Hager and Newton adopting the voices and quirks of every small-town personality.
And you know them all — the town gossip, the failed politician, the football coach of the team that can’t win a game.
Director Kathy Hoefgen calls the show “an affectionate commentary on small-town life and a withering satire at the same time.”
Hoefgen had been hanging onto the idea of producing “Greater Tuna” since her days as a theater major at Indiana State University. The theater department had mounted it as a studio production, and she had fond memories of hilarious performances.
Hoefgen’s previous directing experience with Ricks-Weil includes two serious dramas — “The Miracle Worker” in 2013 and “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 2016 — but “Greater Tuna” gives Hoefgen the chance to stretch her comedic wings.
When it came to filling the roles in the show, Hoefgen chose her actors carefully. She had worked with Hager in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and she admits she had him in mind when it came to casting “Greater Tuna.” She invited him to audition, and he agreed.
Newton, Hager’s 21-year-old co-star, caught the theater bug in the Mt. Vernon High School Drama Department and Ten West Center for the Arts in Fortville. He debuted in community theater with the Ricks-Weil Theatre Co. as Marcellus Washburn in “The Music Man” a show Hoefgen also performed in.
Hoefgen and Hager have known each other even longer — since kindergarten — and have memories of performing together in the sixth grade.
And that — until a year ago — was the sum total of Hager’s acting experience.
While Hoefgen went to college to pursue a degree in theater, Hager went into construction. It was Hager’s teenage daughter who initially nudged him toward the spotlight.
She brought him along to her audition of “The Diary of Anne Frank” last year. Hager teased her, saying that he was going to audition, too.
He ended up in the sizeable and serious role of Hermann van Daan.
Even as a first-time adult actor at age 41, Hager refused to give over to first-night jitters.
“Once I got the first line out, then, it was on,” Hager said.
While “The Diary of Anne Frank,” tied Hager’s character interpretation to a person who actually lived, the fictional personalities he adopts in “Greater Tuna” allow him to develop the characters as his own.
“I look back at the characters I’ve encountered in my life and pull up mental memories to create the character,” Hager said.
The most difficult part has been the voicing, Hager said. With his rapidly changing roles, he must change from one pitch and dialect to another sometimes in a matter of seconds.
Take Pearl Burras: a very unpleasant woman in her 70s, the kind of nasty old biddy who yells at kids for walking down the sidewalk in front of her house.
“It was a challenge getting her voice,” Hager said, “her bitter female voice.”
Hobbling across stage, grousing like his angry grandmother, Hager is a far cry from the jeans and flannel shirt he wears for his day job in the construction field.
“I’m in a different world here than I am in every day,” Hager said.
Theater patrons are encouraged to purchase tickets early as space is limited. “Greater Tuna” takes the stage at a new venue: the Visitors Center and Theatre Annex, located at 119 W. North St. behind the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts on Main St.
As part of the Hancock County Visitors Bureau property, the annex was originally designed as a rehearsal space and overflow storage for the Ricks Centre, said facilities manager Dave Scott, husband of Beth Ray-Scott, the company’s director.
Scott considers “Greater Tuna” an opportunity to determine the annex’s suitability as a performance space. He estimates the maximum seating to be between 30 to 35 audience members.
Hoefgen is excited about the debut of “the annex,” as it was dubbed during rehearsal days for “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
And Greater Tuna is perfect for the space.
“A two-person show is better for a smaller space and a smaller audience,” she said.
Performances of “Greater Tuna” are March 31, April 1 and April 8 at 7:30 p.m. and April 9 at 2:30 p.m. at the Visitors Center and Theatre Annex, 119 W. North St. Tickets can be reserved for $10 by calling 317-477-8689.