The characters of 'Tuna'

Friday, July 13, 2007
The River City Players' Greater Tuna cast on Wednesday, July 11, 2007. (Kit Doyle)

The four cast members interviewed by the Southeast Missourian describe their characters.

Ryan Heslinga in the cast of Greater Tuna. (Kit Doyle)

Ryan Heslinga

* Leonard Childers -- "The Redneck Oprah," a radio show host at OKKK.

* Jody Bumiller -- A little boy with an addiction to pets.

* Arles Struvie -- An excitable co-host at OKKK.

* Yippy -- "Everyone's favorite." A small, shrill dog.

Amanda Robertson in the cast of Greater Tuna. (Kit Doyle)

Amanda Robertson

* Vera Carp -- "A good Christian Baptist woman."

* Petey Fisk -- The spokesman for the Greater Tuna Humane Society, afflicted by a "minor" speech impediment.

* Phinas Blye -- A man who's run for the city council 14 years in a row, but never won a seat.

Phil Shaw in the cast of Greater Tuna. (Kit Doyle)

Phil Shaw

* Thurston Wheelis -- OKKK's morning anchor.

* Harold Dean Lattimer -- OKKK's flamboyant weatherman.

* Coach -- A high-school football coach in the heart of football country whose teams are really, really bad.

Mike Craig in the cast of Greater Tuna. (Kit Doyle)

Mike Craig

* Bertha Bumiller -- A woman who's "right on the edge of going off the edge."

* Hank Bumiller -- Bertha's cheating spouse.

* Elmer Watkins -- A stereotypical redneck and spokesman for the local Ku Klux Klan chapter.

Tuna, Texas, is fictional, but it's a place not far removed from some of the small-town locales in the Southeast Missouri region -- full of quirky characters proud to live in a place where a traffic jam is something caused when a line of cars gets stuck behind a slow combine.

Starting July 20, the River City Players will bring Tuna to Cape Girardeau when they put on their production of the comedy that started the now-famous Tuna trilogy, "Greater Tuna." Four "Tuna" cast members -- Ryan Heslinga, Amanda Robertson, Phil Shaw and Mike Craig -- and the show's director Sandra Shaw sat down to talk with the Southeast Missourian about the fictional town and how they will bring its characters to life.

The actors were in character for large chunks of the interview, but that just doesn't translate well into print.

Matt Sanders: This whole River City Players season is made up of reprised shows the Players have done over the years. Were any of you a part of the Players' original "Tuna" production?

Amanda Robertson: I don't think I was born yet.

MS: Is this production totally new to all of you? Have you read it before or seen it?

Ryan Heslinga: I saw "Tuna Christmas" a few years ago.

Phil Shaw: No, this is all new. Two of us are virgins.

MS: So sum up what this comedy is about.

Robertson: It is a day in the life of a very small town.

Phil Shaw: The third smallest town in Texas.

Mike Craig: And proud of it.

Phil Shaw: And it's a glimpse of all the characters who live in Tuna, Texas, through the radio station (called OKKK).

Robertson: In all the home scenes everyone's listening to the radio station.

MS: First impressions upon reading the script? What did you think about these crazy characters?

Craig: My god, I gotta wear a dress.

Phil Shaw: Every character, just about, that's in the play could have their own play, that's how quirky every character is.

Craig: Except perhaps Yippy.

Heslinga: I don't know ...

Phil Shaw: Yippy could do some Taco Bell commercials.

Robertson: I think this is definitely going to be an interesting show. Between my three characters and his three characters (pointing to Heslinga), we definitely have the entire spectrum.

MS: Being that we live in a rural area, I bet those of you who are from Southeast Missouri can draw on your own experiences to create these characters. Where are you from?

Robertson: Dexter. Originally from Matthews.

Heslinga: I'm a Yankee from the suburbs.

Shaw: St. Louis.

Craig: Jackson.

Robertson: I knew several Vera Carps.

MS: Are these characters that each of you wanted to go after?

Heslinga: I pursued the dog very viciously.

Robertson: Vera and Petey, definitely. Petey simply because everything that he does I personally think is very humorous. And Vera, having known several Vera Carps, I think I can do it well. I hope I do.

Phil Shaw: I respond well to commands. That's how I wound up with my parts.

Craig: Late substitute for a cast drop-out. I didn't have any choice. I'm not complaining. Actually I probably would have gone for those parts.

MS: Has it been a challenge for you to learn multiple parts and to switch characters midstream?

Robertson: The hardest thing is speech, for me.

Craig: Not doing the Petey lisp.

Robertson: Petey has a slight lisp, and Vera's totally different.

MS: With playing so many characters, how hard was it to learn the script?

Heslinga: I've done multiple characters before when I did Shakespeare (the comedy "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)") so I'm kind of used to it.

Craig: I'll be honest, it was a problem for me for a while, it was hard to get my head around it.

Phil Shaw: I have multiple personality disorder and I do it all day long, so it don't bother me in the least.

MS: What's the hardest part of playing multiple characters?

Heslinga: For me it's finding the voice.

Robertson: Yeah, the voice is always the hard part. Petey came from watching Madeline Kahn in "Blazing Saddles."

Heslinga: Up until Sunday I was still planning on getting a new voice for Leonard before I went on.

MS: You River City Players put a lot of time on top of jobs and families and other things into these productions. A lot of people wouldn't do that.

Craig: I walk out here to laughs and applause -- it's better than money.

Robertson: It's the best thing in the world.

Heslinga: I love the bread pudding (fed to the actors by Port Cape). I won't lie, I love the bread pudding.

Sandra Shaw: It's a way to give back to the community.

Robertson: For a lot of people who don't get out of this area to see the Fox or the Muny [in St. Louis], it's hopefully the best theater in the whole city.

Phil Shaw: It's a personal outlet for me, to help me overcome fears, because I'm scared to death to speak in public.

MS: How do you expect this show to do?

Robertson: I think we all have very high hope for this show.

Sandra Shaw: I expect to sell out every night.

Robertson: And if we get half my family it'll happen.

Phil Shaw: If we went through the show right now ... the house would fall.

Robertson: And I think every person in the audience can honestly relate to at least one of the characters on stage.

Phil Shaw: You're related to someone on that stage.

Heslinga: In some cases, their relations aren't related to them, it's them.

Craig: The characters are so naturally up there. Even Phinas, who's supposed to be stilted and strange, it's still natural.

For more information on the "Greater Tuna" series of plays, visit greatertuna.com.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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