Ethan Lipton's bizarre “play with songs” Tumacho seems like a novelty item, in the olden-timey dime-store sense. The whole project is like a strange little wind-up toy, and while it doesn't always function, you get enormous pleasure from watching people try to make it go. How to explain Tumacho? It's a British panto without the audience participation, or a Theater of the Ridiculous hurly-burly without the drag. It's unadulterated silliness: a string of gleefully juvenile gags about an Old West frontier town overrun by a bloodsucking ghoul, in which choral duties are handed over to a line of cactus puppets. We're in “a one-horse town whose horse broke down,” the saguaros sing, as a higgledy-piggledy thriller about vengeance and demonic possession unfurls on a postage-stamp stage.
While no one actually takes a shot at the piano player (Mike Brun), you can tell this grubby saloon is the kind of joint where they might. The evil Big Bill Yardley (Danny Wolohan) has been terrorizing the premises; ineffectual Mayor Evans (John Ellison Conlee) and bartender Alice (Jennifer Lim) agree that the townsfolk now number fewer than a dozen. Will wronged Catalina (Celia Keenan-Bolger) shoot Bill? Will she ever spare the cook, Chappy (Jeremy Shamos), a second glance? Is the callow gunslinger Clem (Omar Metwally) all he seems? And why is prim Prudence (Randy Danson) suddenly interested in drinking? Honestly, it wouldn't make sense if I told you, so it's best just to head over to them parts, hitch your leg over a barstool and giggle.
Did someone say narrative holes? Buckaroo, Tumacho's got narrative canyons. But this final production of Clubbed Thumb's 2016 Summerworks festival demonstrates what sheer talent and good feeling can do. Any time the guitar player strikes up a chord, we remember that Lipton's the composer of the marvelous song cycle No Place to Go; at show's end, Leigh Silverman's all-star nine-person cast can't fit in a line for their bows. It's a full rogue's gallery of comic performance, with Conlee's twinkling sweetness, Metwally's sly gravity, Shamos's moon-eyed innocence and Wolohan's infectious anarchy all elbowing one another for M.V.P. Everyone seems to be having the time of their lives, cracking wise and occasionally cracking each other up. Perhaps because I associate this winking boy's-adventure pastiche with groups like Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the whole thing feels like a senior project—but at a college that only takes students with Drama Desk nominations.