Photo: Sara Krulwich

  • Opening Night:
    June 27, 2016
    July 9, 2016

    Theater: The Wild Project / 195 East 3rd Street, New York, New York, 10009


    Once again, the citizens of a frontier outpost are looking for someone to rescue them from the terrors of the local villain. Have they met their salvation--or an even bigger tyrant--when a fiend from the past comes to town? Jonathan Richman meets Jon Stewart meets John Ford in this Western comedy with music.


    ‘Tumacho,’ a Rootin-Tootin’ Musical, Keeps Its Poker Face

    Ben Brantley

    July 3, 2016: As the setting is a saloon in the wildest of Wests, it seems right fittin’ that every blessed member of the cast of “Tumacho,” which opened last week in a sweet tequila haze at the Wild Project in the East Village, is terrific at keeping a poker face. And, man, it can’t be easy. This impeccably inane horse opera by Ethan Lipton, directed with cantering wit by Leigh Silverman, is filled with temptations for “corpsing.” That’s the term for what happens when performers crack one another up onstage, though given the high body count of Mr. Lipton’s script, you are excused for inferring other meanings. Consider, for example, that two-way conversation between a three-legged coyote and a barkeeper, or the several sequences that require the ensemble to impersonate cactuses or the scene in which everybody has to assume the ready, willing and able postures appropriate to being ravaged by the sexually omnivorous evil spirit of the play’s title. Or how about the head-spinning stretch of dialogue in which one character, who has been bound to a chair by a homicidal gunslinger, tries to explain to another what “ineffable” means? As performed by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeremy Shamos, the exchange assumes the surreal circularity of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” routine. Yet only rarely does anyone in this musical production, which features Tex-Mex ditties for piano, guitar and banjo (all played with vernacular ease by Mike Brun), evince the quivering chin that betrays that these characters think that what they’re doing is at all funny. The audience will find itself incapable of similar stoicism. “Tumacho” is this summer’s third and final offering in the annual Summerworks season from the downtown incubator of antic theater Clubbed Thumb, and it bids fair to become the sleeper that last year’s play in the same slot did. That was “Men on Boats,” Jaclyn Backhaus’s account of a real-life 19th-century expedition in the Western wilderness, which featured all-male characters embodied by a nonmale cast, which reopens later this summer at Playwrights Horizons. Like that subversive charmer, “Tumacho” plays dizzily with historical notions of American manliness (just pronounce its name), but in a more willfully absurdist key. Mr. Lipton, a writer and cabaret performer who specializes in deadpan drollery (“Red-Handed Otter,” “No Place to Go”), has said this play was partly inspired by the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. What he has created, though, is hardly op-ed theater. Mr. Lipton takes up arms to disarm, with a cathartic exercise in wish fulfillment that even as it draws blood (in a variety of ways) drains the testosterone from the classic shoot-’em-up. To do so, he has enlisted a Broadway-pedigree crew that includes, in addition to Ms. Silverman (a Tony nominee for “Violet”), the inventive designers David Zinn (sets) and Anita Yavich (costumes), and an ensemble of pros known for hair-trigger timing. The resulting work pays homage not only to cowboy classics à la “High Noon” but also to their gorier descendants, as rendered by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, not to mention all those eye-glazing zombie and vampire series that occupy the time of television bingers. There’s also a goofy glimmer of the sexual psychodrama of those bizarre 1950s western noirs “Johnny Guitar” and “Rancho Notorious.” The teeming plot is centered on a prairie village rotting from lawlessness — “a one-horse town where the horse broke down,” to quote the opening song. That its population has shrunk from a thousand to maybe “20 on a good day” has much to do with the reign of terror brought on by Big Bill Yardley (Danny Wolohan), a man in black who lives to kill. This state of civic decrepitude is the bane of the ineffectual Mayor Evans (John Ellison Conlee), whose problems are about to become a lot worse. According to Sam (Bill Buell), the resident oracular old-timer, when the streets run red with blood and the three-legged coyote howls, the ghost of the baddest man who ever lived in the area, Tumacho, returns to inhabit the body of a townsperson and become a bloodsucking tyrant. You’d need an advanced GPS to follow the roads the plot takes from this premise. All you really need to know is that those who map its perilous paths on stage are experts in pursuing silliness seriously. The candidates for demonic possession here include Ms. Keenan-Bolger (“The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway) as the revenge-thirsty Catalina Vucovic-Villalobos (try saying that with a swollen tongue, as she must), Mr. Shamos as Big Bill’s foodie chef (and hostage negotiator) of a sidekick, and Jennifer Lim as a coyote-nurturing saloonkeeper. Then there’s Randy Danson as the town prude; Omar Metwally as both a mysterious stranger and his famous father; and Gibson Frazier as the death-weary local doctor. Whether speaking in the language of vintage oaters, political double talk or current self-help books; manipulating puppets against open-sky backdrops; or singing in the style of Gene Autry in the saddle, they’re all wonderfully earnest. While the show has its expected share of scatological jokes and schoolboy humor, there’s none of the wink-wink self-consciousness common to downtown campfests or Zucker brothers movies. Ms. Silverman and her cast find an amiable gentleness that matches Mr. Lipton’s low-key absurdism, which makes everything all the funnier. “Tumacho” is the platonic theatrical version of the artfully anarchic, shrewdly mindless comedies we wait for every summer to hit movie theaters, often in vain. In other words, there’s no need to hold out for the rebooted “Ghostbusters” for as long as “Tumacho” is in town.



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