Ken Starling has played a variety of roles in his local theater career — from the 7-foot Monster in "Young Frankenstein" to the 4-foot Lord Farquaad in "Shrek" to exposing almost all of his 6-foot-5-inch self in "The Full Monty."
But Starling, a dentist, is now facing his most challenging role, or roles, yet — twins Gunner and Trigger Johnson in “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married,” at Café Luke Dinner Theatre in Slidell’s Olde Towne.
Making Starling’s task more challenging is that Trigger is a woman, even if she does have a beard and wear forest ranger garb while retaining more feminine notions about romance.
“I had to come up with two different voices, and at one point, they’re talking to each other off-stage,” Starling said of playing both Gunner and Trigger. “I’m having to work hard not to lose track of where I am and get them mixed up.
“I’m not getting paid double for this either. Maybe they’ll let me have two plates of food.”
Sunday’s New Year’s Eve debut of “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married,” a musical comedy about the wacky residents of Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, is already sold out. But tickets remain for the Jan. 5 and 6 shows.
“We’re Married,” is one of five “Don’t Hug Me” comedies penned by Paul and Phil Olson, with another one in the works. They’ve been likened to the “Greater Tuna” series, albeit with a larger cast (five vs. two in "Tuna") and the setting transported from Texas to Minnesota, complete with accents straight out of “Fargo.”
Producer-director Ricky Luke said he was looking for a musical (there are 16 songs), but finding one with a small, dinner theater-size cast can be difficult.
What makes this one worthwhile, he added, is the funny dialogue heightened by the accents.
“I tried to get Ricky to let us do it without the accents,” Starling said. “But he said there’s no way you can say things like ‘Oh, my goodness,’ and ‘My gosh,’ and not have them as hilarious as they come out with them.
“He was right. But it’s terrifying until you at least think you’ve got them down.”
At least one of the five cast members qualifies to be an unofficial advisor.
The grandmother of local theater regular Melissa Benson was born in Bemidji, Minnesota, home of the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues seen in “Fargo” and about as north woods as you can get. Benson plays Clara Johnson, Gunner’s wife.
Although Benson has never been to Bemidji herself, she can remember the way her grandmother spoke and pass along a few other tips.
“I’d say we started out sounding like we were from India and then progressed to Ireland,” Benson said. “But we’re definitely getting better.”
Benson’s husband, Kirk, is in the play as Kanute Gunderson, described as an “oblivious, dense and harmless businessman.”
Rounding out the cast are Tiffany Christy as “pretty, young wholesome waitress” Bernice Lundstrom and John Kirkpatrick as Aarvid Gisselsen Slick, a fast-talking karaoke machine salesman.
The story takes place in the bar owned by Gunner and Clara, who have seen the romance fade from their marriage. When Gunner finds a pamphlet for “Divorce Fantasy Camp” that Clara was hiding, he decides to take action.
At the same time, Bernice gets engaged to Aarvid, and when man-hungry Trigger comes to town, she proposes to Kanute, who despite his shortcomings, is the wealthiest man in town.
Between the planned double wedding and Gunner and Clara trying to find their spark again, things get interesting.
“We can’t get through this without laughing,” Christy said. “It’s like every single line is hilarious.”
That, Christy added, should keep sometimes-restive audiences attentive.
“Sometimes in dinner theater, people are doing something else other than watching the show,” she said. “You got to get their attention and make them stay awake.
“This show is perfect because of the music and all of the quick one-liners. There’s a lot of ridiculous stuff.”
Luke said if this production is as well-received as he hopes, there could be more “Don’t Hug Mes” in the future. They don’t, he added, wear thin like too many “Greater Tunas” can.
If so, you can sign up Starling.
“This is fun, crazy, zany stuff,” he said. “You’re going to watch it and say, ‘What are these people doing?’
“I’d love to be part of it again.”