About halfway through the glorious romp of Ethan Lipton’s “Tumacho,” which I saw for the third time last Saturday night amid the drip, drip of quarantine notices and university closings, the beleaguered citizens of the “one horse town, where the horse broke down” ask for a little help. The town Doctor’s hands are covered in blood, the saloon is empty, the last living dog turns out to be a coyote, and an ancient demon-spirit of mayhem may have just taken over the body of the last decent person in town. They all sing together, in harmony —
We need a break,
Give us a break!
Simple stuff, but it sounded just right.
It’s not easy to put my finger on what I love so much about this play. I first saw it back in the summer of 2016 during its early workshop, at which point I deemed it a “hopalong Oresteia” that joked and sang against the gun-worship so central to ideas about the American West. That still seems right, and I might broaden my sense of the play now to suggest that the story of a town confronting its gunslinger demon might even parallel another revenge tragedy that does not believe in revenge that’s been playing in New York this month. (I guess the great Irish production of Hamlet starring Ruth Negga has just closed.)
Tumacho, unlike Hamlet, rolls out a joke a minute, interspersed with easy-listenin’ ballads and sentimental songs by a wondrously balanced cast including Hamilton-star Phillipa Soo in the lead role as Catalina Vucovich-Rio Lobos, a female gunfighter who transforms herself from revenge-seeker to village redeemer, with a few other stops along the way. The songs bring out Ethan Lipton’s distinctive combination of goofy earnestness and emotional heft. When Catalina faces a gunfighter whose son she has accidentally shot, his warbling song confronts her with half-baby talk, half profundity:
Rub your tummy
Pat your head,
There can be no justice for the dead.
I’ve been watching Ethan Lipton’s plays and songs since the 1990s, when he was part of a theater troupe in Los Angeles with my brother in law. More recently in New York, his No Place to Go and The Outer Space have been among my favorite things to see at Joe’s Pub. “Tumacho” shifts the genre from lounge-singer fantasia to a sendup of Western tropes and cowboy tunes. I don’t think I was the only old guy in the audience who hummed along with Marty Robbins’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs when it played over the sound system as we too our seats!
Art’s hard in the best of times, to say nothing of today’s anxiety-inducing world of viral infections and institutional fragility. “Tumacho” sings out, in one of our nation’s basic idioms, a song of solidarity, humor, loss, and unexpected joy. These are good things to remember in viral times.
Go see it during the next two weeks, even if we’re supposed to stay away from large gatherings. The Connelly Theater on Avenue B is cozy and not too crowded. Plus the patrons don’t seem to mind if you work your way all the way through the “Out, damned spot” speech while washing your hands!
Two more weeks!