In 2007, the Walnut Street Theatre hired Madi Distefano to direct “Greater Tuna,” the wildly popular 1981 camp-comedy in which two actors play dozens of roles with quick-change hilarity. At the time, it seemed like an awkward pairing: Distefano — best known for her punk-inspired, DIY company, Brat Productions — directing a Red State favorite for the most conservative theater in town.
But the Walnut took to Distefano without a snag, rehiring her for both “Tuna” sequels. And, in the process, the director began conjuring a quick-change comedy for her own company.
Brat’s latest — “Meanwhile …” — opens tomorrow at the RUBA Club.
“By the time I finished [directing] the first ‘Tuna’ play, I started to get a grasp of the structure of quick-change plays,” says Distefano. “The plots for the ‘Tuna’ shows are just so silly, and I thought, ‘Well, hell, I can write one of these.’”
With the help of a Philadelphia Theater Initiative grant, Brat has transplanted Atlantic City of the 1940s into the upstairs at the RUBA.
“I was trying to come up with a world that has recognizable stock characters, since that’s so key to the fun of a quick-change play, and I found endless stock characters from that post-Prohibition age,” explains Distefano. “But the only problem was that I chose a mystery, and that is hard to write. It’s almost like you’ve got to confuse yourself, or it’s just too obvious. I had trouble figuring out who did it for a while.”
Sounds like a fair trade
With director Lee Ann Etzold at the helm of “Meanwhile …,” Brat is attempting to buck the male-centric tradition of the quick-change genre by casting locals Mary McCool and Sarah Doherty.
“People say ‘Tuna’ wouldn’t be as funny with two women, because boys in dresses are funny. Well, Mary [McCool] playing a detective and putting Sarah Doherty up against a wall — I think there’s something really sexy about that,” says Distefano. “So what we lose in laughs from men in skirts, maybe we gain from the sexiness of two women playing all these roles.”