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SLO Rep's Greater Tuna shows off cast's acting chops

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A two-man show doesn't quite have the same impressive ring to it as a one-man show, unless that two-man show involves both actors portraying a combined 20 characters, complete with costume changes, gender swaps, and role reversals.

And the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre's Billy Breed (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Jeff Salsbury (Doubt) shine as they tackle one character and costume change after the next in Greater Tuna, which opened Aug. 9.

THE SCOOP A somewhat misguided attempted book banning brings a very concerned PTA mom (Billy Breed, right) and a sleepy, local journalist (Jeff Salsbury) together for a comical encounter in the comedic tour de farce, Greater Tuna. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF RYLO MEDIA DESIGN
  • Photos Courtesy Of Rylo Media Design
  • THE SCOOP A somewhat misguided attempted book banning brings a very concerned PTA mom (Billy Breed, right) and a sleepy, local journalist (Jeff Salsbury) together for a comical encounter in the comedic tour de farce, Greater Tuna.

Set in the small fictional town of Tuna, Texas—"where the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies"—the 1981 comedic play by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard simultaneously manages to make tender and searing commentary on Southern small-town life. Greater Tuna is the first in a series of four comedic plays (followed by A Tuna Christmas; Red, White and Tuna; and Tuna Does Vegas), each set in fictional Tuna—the "third-smallest" town in the state—with Greater Tuna being thought of as the darkest in tone of the four.

For SLO Rep's rendition, director Suzy Newman (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) employs a minimalist set with a barn door, rustic signs, and twinkle lights adorning the theater.

Breed and Salsbury open and close the show as Tuna's beloved, if quaint, radio hosts Thurston and Arles, who interweave actual news with small-town gossip galore. Then there's Bertha (Breed), the befuddled mom and housewife who can't understand why her young son, Jody (Salsbury), has eight to 10 dogs following him at all times, but she strongly suspects Petey Fisk (Salsbury), the hapless face of the local humane society, is to blame. The morose Fisk has his own problems, with more cats than he can count, a herd of dogs, a snake, and the constantly un-adoptable dog, Yippy, that he just can't bring himself to put down.

SIGNING OFF Jeff Salsbury and Billy Breed open and close the comedy Greater Tuna as a pair of two-bit radio co-hosts in a small, made-up town somewhere in Texas. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF RYLO MEDIA DESIGN
  • Photos Courtesy Of Rylo Media Design
  • SIGNING OFF Jeff Salsbury and Billy Breed open and close the comedy Greater Tuna as a pair of two-bit radio co-hosts in a small, made-up town somewhere in Texas.

Meanwhile, an accidental dog killing brings Bertha's sister (Breed) and her oldest no-good son, Stanley (Salsbury), together while an actual human death connects almost all the storylines in chilling, albeit hilarious ways.

Salsbury and Breed also face off as a journalist and concerned mom, respectively—one looking to ban books from the local schools, and the other looking to get to a juicy story in a ho-hum tumbleweed town.

Whether Breed and Salsbury are playing men, women, children, or the elderly, each member of the dynamic duo plays off the other in a way that feels real, authentic, and earned. You just want young Jody to have all the puppies he wants, and at the same time, you empathize with his mother's concern, even if her stance on certain words in the dictionary is suspect.

Beyond the campy humor and redneck hillbilly jokes, Greater Tuna gets at something deeper: that we're all just trying to find our way to or from the weird place we call home. Δ

Arts Writer Ryah Cooley was born and raised in the small town of Paso Robles. Send arts story tips to Assistant Editor Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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