by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & eefy guys in drag, high-pitched silly voices, audiences taking child-like delight in the actors' rapid costume changes: the Tuna plays, seen locally before, offer predictable joys. But can the current productions at Actors Rep of both Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas (alternating dates through Sept. 9) pull off more than just high jinks and farce?

These small-town laugh-fests concocted by a trio of Texas playwrights -- Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard -- are crowd-pleasers. But in his program note, Artistic Director Michael Weaver says that "The Tuna Project" will be going after matters both "hilarious and socially significant." William Marlowe and Weaver have performed these shows before, both separately and together, so they know the material. How deep could they go into these characters? And is there much depth there to begin with?

It's a considerable feat, this business of having a pair of actors play 28 distinct characters (in 41 speaking roles) in two different plays -- and then performing them on alternate nights. Memorizing all those lines wasn't the half of it. Would Weaver and Marlowe be able to maintain their comic timing and the hectic pace?

Seeing the shows back-to-back -- an unusual opportunity, given the demands of putting on a pair of fast-action comedies with just two actors -- makes it clear that comic overkill is a danger here: There's only so much grinning we can do, especially when (as in the case of A Tuna Christmas) the evening lasts well past two and a half hours.

Despite that, there are sequences in these two plays that are so good, they'll make your jaw drop. For example, when visitors drop by the white-trash Bumillers' trailer, they have to confront a pack of hyper-excited little dogs nurtured by son Jody. (He's the one wearing the propeller hat.) Marlowe and Weaver themselves provide the whooping dog-yips. Somehow they manage to give several of the dogs distinct personalities. (One of them is named Yippy.) Weaver looks for all the world like he's doing frustrated pirouettes amid a pack of little yapping Chihuahuas. And yet the pooches are invisible. Best of all, the actors simultaneously deliver the dog sounds and their lines while shooing the frenzied "puppies" in one door and out back. As a playgoer, you wonder how they did all that -- and then, just as quickly, you stop speculating about logistics and just start enjoying the moment: two virtuosos at play.

The three playwrights appeal to our imaginations a lot like that, and director Patrick Treadway has the good sense to underscore all the offstage business. Treadway generally doesn't try to wow us with how mercury-quick he can accomplish his duo's costume changes; his method instead is to fill the gaps with onstage business or offstage sounds and dialogue so that we won't pause to think why no one's been onstage for awhile.

The result is increased emphasis on the acting. Marlowe responds by immersing himself in some of the characters so thoroughly that you blink to make sure it's still the same guy under that new dress, that wig, those pearls. His most endearing portrait may be of poor old Petey Fisk of the Humane Society, kind-hearted but inept. With his eyes darting to the ceiling with insecurity and buttoned down tight in his Minnesota earflaps, Petey makes periodic appeals on radio station OKKK on behalf of the dogs, cats, coyotes and crocodiles that other people just don't want. Petey is a pathetic, laughable loner -- but he has a good heart, and his compassion's genuine, which is more than you can say for most of the folks in this dusty little town. Marlowe gives a squeaky voice and self-effacing manner to Petey, who shows up with successively more bandages in every scene: The animals may bite the hand that feeds them, but Petey's hand still remains open and giving. By getting past nerdiness in his characterization, Marlowe makes Petey both ridiculous and admirable.

Marlowe does broad comedy too. One Greater Tuna sequence in particular is a lesson for actors on how to steal focus constructively. While Weaver is busy delivering a eulogy, Marlowe's impersonating Vera Carp, a local busybody who disapproves of others even more than her name implies. Marlowe sits demurely at first, then starts gesturing to illustrate what the preacher's pontificating about. It accelerates into a spoof of veiled animosities, sign language and speechifying that steals the scene's focus and redoubles its comedy.

In fact, it's tempting to say that Marlowe excels at the physical humor and Weaver at the pathos -- until you recall the number of times that Marlowe achieves tender sentiment and Weaver gets all frantic and hilarious. Together, they play the final scene of A Tuna Christmas with involving warmth: Marlowe's young juvenile delinquent (his red Mohawk striped with green for Christmas) and Weaver's Aunt Pearl suddenly become more than just circus freaks. For all their dysfunction, these people out on the Texas plains have the same needs and ideals that we do.

There are weaknesses, of course. Several of the characterizations don't get past the level of stereotype: the KKK creep, the imbecile husband and the soused husband, the tent-revival preacher, the cocksure sheriff, the flaming gay-but-in-denial local theater director, the gum-chewing diner waitresses. Perhaps, in shows so crammed with "real characters," that's unavoidable. But then, in quiet moments that crop up after waves of the audience's laughter, Williams, Sears and Howard give us quick insights into the caricatures' humanity. In a scene with two old biddies shooting birds with a slingshot, Weaver and Marlowe together find the loss along with the loopiness. And as Bertha Bumiller, the mother of all dysfunctional matriarchs, Weaver has a simple answer to her son's "What do you want for Christmas, Mama?" "Your father here," she says, thinking of her unfaithful, unseen husband. Weaver conveys the loneliness of a woman who, moments before, had merely seemed worthy of ridicule.

The show's look supports its comedy. Jamie Flanery's set -- a rusted-out, corrugated-steel mobile home with makeshift antennas perched aloft, and carny signs advertising the county fair's midget toss event -- proves its versatility by serving as a radio station and as the home of the sad-sack Bumiller family. The best of several good creations by costumers Dee Finan and Jan Wanless is for campy Vera Carp, leader of the book-censoring Smut Snatchers: raven hair piled in a ratty bird's nest beehive, cat's-paw glasses, phony bosoms bobbling beneath a sensible suit and Marlowe's lipstick sneer.

By the final scene of Christmas, however, that sneer is gone: Marlowe's transformed into a good ol' boy, Weaver's in drag, and two of their unlikeliest characters are hooking up for a late-night kiss and some prospective romance. Good actors don't just settle for a few jokes.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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