By Samuel L. Leiter
Tumacho is back in town, as declared on the program for this blandly amusing Western spoof. But is that really such a good thing? Ethan Lipton’s (Red-Handed Otter) “play with songs” is the kind of silly farce where one part of the audience guffaws at every pun and non sequitur, another part never cracks a smile, and the rest, perhaps feeling guilty, meekly responds with an occasional chuckle.
If you wet your pants at bits like a man’s offstage voice being endlessly thankful about what a good pee he’s having, as we simultaneously hear his rushing stream, or enjoy speeches in which a grown man makes “doo-doo” jokes, Tumacho is probably up your alley. For me, these were reasons enough to consider Tumacho too mucho.
Set largely in a saloon—designed by David Zinn—in a one-horse, frontier town in cactus territory, Tumacho uses a sci-fi twist to subvert the old trope about frightened townspeople awaiting someone (or something) to save them from a nasty villain. The movie Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind.
Anita Yavitch and Devario D. Simmons have provided the familiar cowboy and cowgirl costumes and Jen Schriever has provided sprightly lighting. Matthew Dean Hirsh, seated at a piano down right, and also playing the guitar and banjo, accompanies the pleasantly listenable country western songs—too few, however, for a full-blown musical. Puppets, created by Raphael Mishler, including a chorus of cacti, add a touch of prickly hijinks but not enough to distract from the labored comic tumbleweed.
Tumacho, directed by the ever-busy Leigh Silverman (Grand Horizons), was nicely received in 2016 during its brief run as part of Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival at the Wild Project, with a top-notch cast including Broadway stalwarts Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeremy Shamos. Those actors, and a couple of others, have been replaced by other fine talents, but some of the originals are back.
John Ellison Conlee (The (curious case of the Watson Intelligence) is again Mayor Evans, the incompetent, if well-meaning, leader of a town whose citizenry is rapidly disappearing, either by taking one in the back from the murderous Bill Yardley (Andrew Garman), or “crawling out of town on their bellies” to escape such a dire fate. With the streets running red, of course, there’s a medical man around—Doc Alonzo (Gibson Frazier)—to attend to the dead and dying, including a dog—coyote, actually—who loses a leg but gets few laughs for his troubles.
Philippa Soo (Hamilton) handles Catalina, the Keenan-Bolger part. A gunslinging drunk first seen hunkering face down at the bar, she seeks revenge on Bill for killing her parents. Chappy (Andy Grotelueschen [Tootsie] in the Jeremy Shamos role), a doofus who dreams of being a hostage negotiator, has a thing for Catalina, who’ll get her chance for vengeance after another gunslinger, Clement (Chinaza Uche), arrives. For a minute, he represents a possible end to Bill’s attacks, but a ricocheting bullet has other ideas. This sends Catalina on a quest to find Clement’s famous gunslinging father, Clement, Sr. (Uche again).
Also on hand are saloon keeper Alice (Layla Khoshnoudi, Men on Boats), her old grandpa, Sam (Bill Buell, Ink), and the very proper, elderly Prudence (Randy Danson, The Thin Place). The inciting incident, as the textbooks used to say, appears after Sam notices that the clouds are upside down, signaling the imminent arrival of a legendary demon called Tumacho. Soon enough, Tumacho has invaded the person of one of the aforesaid and begins “ravaging” the helpless citizenry—including the too macho Bill—by feeding on their blood. Yes, Tumacho has batty tastes.
One crazy development follows another, with the humor stemming from unexpected words and actions, like an over-the-top feast Tumacho glops down the hatch almost as if it were made of Tic-Tacs. Too many such japes fire comic blanks, though.
The extremely able cast shows just how potent good acting can be with mediocre material, even if very little registers on the comedy meter to match some of the 2016 critics’ descriptions. Silverman does, however, deserve praise for getting the company to play most of the absurdity with a straight face. I told my companion afterward that the show smacked of a college fraternity show, maybe something like a Hasty Pudding Theatrical, only to discover later that someone said just that about the earlier production.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons, especially when there’s a perfect example waiting at the hitching post. That would be the recent Desperate Measures. Now there’s a bowlegged show that wins the six-shooter, ten-gallon, wit-slinging draw hands down, with an arsenal of music and spirit, revealing just how depleted Tumacho’s store of ammo really is.
Tumacho. Through March 14 at the Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street, between Avenues A & B). www.clubbedthumb.org
Photos: Quinn Corbin and Elke Young