As the US grapples with horrific evidence of our culture’s violent obsession with guns, Ethan Lipton’s hilarious and brilliant satirocomic Wild West musical, Tumacho, provides the perfect comic riposte. The show is closed now, after a super-short sold out run the Clubbed Thumb’s The Wild Project in the East Village. But I hope it re-opens someplace soon — it’s the play we need to see. I’m ready to go again!
A desolate sagebrush town has been depopulated by Big Bill Yardly, a black-dressed gunman played with an enthusiastic snarl by Danny Wolohan. Mayor Evans, played with equal parts sympathy and hypocrisy by John Ellison Conlee, can’t stop the violence and is thinking about skipping town. Doc Alonzo, played by Gibson Frazier, is tired of being covered in the blood of his town’s expiring citizens. Catalina, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, has lost her parents to the gunman as a child and seeks “murderous bloody revenge.” So far, so archetypical.
Into this too-familiar landscape floats the demon Tumacho, a free-floating spirit of violence doomed to return to the town at uncertain intervals. Tumacho, who in his original human incarnation appears to have burned his true love alive after mistakenly thinking her false, represents the circularity of a culture built on violent retribution. Can the demon rid the town of gunslinger Bill? Would a town run by Tumacho — the name slyly insinuates both “too much” machismo and a culture in which you (“tu”) must always be macho — be better than Bill’s pueblo of horrors? Would anyone notice the difference?
My favorite scene was the early three-way standoff between gunman Bill, revenger Catalina, and Clem, the son of a rival gunman who’s arrived in town seeking to kill Big Bill in order to impress his now-retired father. All three listen to old man Sam’s doggerel prophecy:
When the streets run red with blood,
And the clouds are upside down,
Then the three-legged coyote howls,
For Tumacho’s back in town…
Each thinks: that could be me!
Has the gunman killed enough townspeople to merit the title Tumacho? Will newly-arrived Clem finally step into his daddy’s bloody shoes? Or will Catalina’s dedication to revenge her parents carry the day? Quien es mas tumacho?
I won’t spoil the gorgeously random twists and turns of the plot, except perhaps to say that Tumacho eventually occupies an unexpected body. And it will require all the town’s residents, including the halitosis-fueled Mayor, to send the demon packing.
On one side of the stage, Mike Brun plays guitar, electric bass, piano, and banjo, and the cast sings a series of original songs. The one I can’t get out of my head is “No Justice for the Dead,” sung as a duet between Catalina and the father of the gunslinger who challenged Big Bill in the opening scene. Part sentimental ballad and part comic tour-de-force (Catalina sings with a tongue swollen from waterless desert travel), the song gets at the hollow core of a culture of violence. What’s the point of shooting? What’s violence for?
Or, as a goofier send-up number near to the end has it, performed by a nearly full cast dressed as ramblin’ Saguaros —
Yes, it takes a little practice
To love a cactus…