You need good hand-eye coordination, sneakers, kneepads and a sense of humor to navigate all the backstage costume changes in the "Greater Tuna" plays.
Actress Karen Jones ought to know. For about a decade, she and her actor husband, Richard, have been working costume changes for Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in the "Tuna Trilogy" (which the two actors created with director Ed Howard). The four are old friends from their San Antonio theater days, which go back 30 years.
"Greater Tuna" was conceived as a party skit 22 years ago in Austin. "A Tuna Christmas" and "Red, White and Tuna" followed and complete the trilogy. The last, a Fourth of July play, runs at the Kennedy Center Friday through July 10.
The tales are set in the tiny, fictional burg of Tuna, Tex., eccentrically populated by Williams's and Sears's multiple male and female characters. During scene changes they morph from one into another -- wigs on, mustaches off; ditto shoes, dresses, suspenders. Jones and the others backstage have it down to a science.
"We have all the costumes hung on the backstage walls in the order that they're going to be needed. And then we use three large, eight-foot conference tables to set up all the accessories," she says. One of the crew might be "on the floor, ready to grab the shoes off of them and they'll have another pair of shoes there . . . while the second dresser is working on the head part," Jones says. "He or she will grab a hat or a mustache. Sometimes Joe or Jaston will pull off a mustache and just slap it on our heads."
As the actors change costumes, "they become that character. . . . When we change Joe into Leonard -- he's the town lech, so [Joe] becomes the lech backstage, and Bertha is the town gossip, and Vera, you just can't print what Vera does. . . .
"We laugh constantly, constantly," Jones says. "We have to laugh and think at the same time, and that's kind of hard to do. Plus we have to laugh quietly, because we never know if their mikes will be turned on or off."
There have been snafus, but Jones won't talk out of school. The backstage crew has taken a vow, she says: "Whatever happens in Tuna stays in Tuna."
Baltimore Playwrights Fest
Missing socks, Cold War secrets, the unconscious mind and family matters represent a few topics being covered at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival this summer. Running through Aug. 28, the festival marks its 24th season showcasing the work of Maryland playwrights. This year's roster includes five full-length works and six one-acts put on by seven small, largely nonprofessional, theater companies.
BPF Chairman Mark Scharf, a dramatist himself ("Whispers of Saints," "Falling Grace" and his current offerings, "Blue Mermaid" and the one-act "Get Stuffed," about a trash-talking teddy bear), says the festival is a very open affair. "There is no central artistic director or committee making choices. The participating theaters choose the plays they want to do," he says. "So you get a wide variety of taste."
For a new or even a more seasoned playwright, the experience is invaluable. "I've seen how my play works on its feet. I've seen how an audience reacts to it. I've been reviewed by the local media and I've got a pretty good idea of what I've got and what I don't have," Scharf says.
WTOP radio weekend anchor Rosemary Frisino Toohey is a BPF veteran represented this year by two one-acts. "Socks," is a comedy about three odd socks and a legwarmer discussing their abandonment in a dryer. "It's kind of an allegory for what happens to people when they get left behind," Frisino Toohey says. "Some of us kind of let ourselves be moved around and sorted out like socks." In "Cornered," she says, a woman "whose existence has been really radically altered by a paralyzing illness" comes to a decision.
Another festival returnee, Joe Dennison, got the inspiration for his short play "Ouch!" at last year's festival. "An actress stubbed her toe and ad-libbed her way out of it by saying 'Ouch!,' " he remembers. From there he ran with the idea of someone stubbing his or her toe, falling and losing consciousness. "Suddenly it became an absurdist dream-within-a-dream story," says Dennison, who works by day for a Silver Spring paint contractor and also paints watercolors.
Daniel Mont is an economist with the World Bank. In his full-length play "Myron and Evelyn," a woman "has decided she's had enough" after 52 years of marriage. A friend of Mont's arranged a reading at an assisted-living center. "I was really nervous that they were going to read the play and say no woman who was that age would walk out and leave her husband," he said, but the audience's reaction was, "Oh yeah, absolutely!"
In Stephen LaRocque's "$40 Million if You Want It," a mysterious bequest intrigues the director of "a down-at-the-heels think tank." In tracing the source of the money, the director recalls that the place "used to be a front for getting academics out from behind the Iron Curtain," LaRocque says. A Navy commander who is a cryptologist and linguist, LaRocque says he realized that the Cold War is becoming ancient history and "I wanted to conjure that up" again.
Scharf's "Blue Mermaid," one of his "Ocean City beach plays," depicts an artist and her newly orphaned teenage granddaughter. Although estranged because the girl's mother was a drug abuser, "these women are connected in a way they can't escape," says Scharf.
For schedule and locations, go to www.baltimoreplaywrightsfestival.org.
* MFA students from the Shakespeare Theatre's Academy for Classical Acting are performing "The Maid's Tragedy," by Elizabethan dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" tonight through Saturday at 507 Eighth St. SE.
Call 202-457-1122, ext. 9 to reserve or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
* Signature Theatre is offering a free concert of Broadway tunes Thursday through Saturday at 6:30 p.m., plus a 1 p.m. Saturday matinee, on the lawn at Welburn Square across from the Ballston Metro stop. No tickets needed, but for information call 703-820-9771.
* Natural Theatricals will present Euripides' rarely done late play "Ion" on June 24-July 17 at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. Visit www.naturaltheatricals.com.