Ethan Lipton’s weirdo Western Tumacho reminded me, strangely enough, of a Jim Jarmusch film. This reminiscence came not through its tone or anarchy — Tumacho is much more antic and over-the-top in comparison to Jarmusch’s deadpan, unhurried strangeness — but in how it delivered on the internal expectations created by genre.
Take, for example, the recent Jarmusch film The Dead Don’t Die, which is a zombie film. I’m pretty sure you don’t watch it for the zombies. Rather, you’re intrigued by what would happen to a zombie film when filtered through the Jarmusch lens, which creates a unique set of expectations that Jarmusch is able to manipulate. We want to see how he plays within the form.
Lipton, who I am less familiar with, seems to be playing a similar game with Tumacho. It’s an old-time Western! Obviously. The very first thing that appears onstage is a bunch of singing cactuses. The second thing that happens is a lengthy urination scene utilizing foley work from the sound guy, who also plays all the instruments. If you’re not already on board at that point, it’s probably too late for you. What follows is mostly familiar. The mayor’s a failure. Everyone’s headed out of town. There’s a bad-to-the-bone gunslinger who just killed the new sheriff in cold blood on the street. More importantly, the gun battle wounded a pet coyote, which the doctor is able to save, sans a leg. Everything has gone to proverbial hell, and the town needs a savior. It’s all pretty pro forma, and we settle in for the ride.
Then strangeness creeps in. Really, it’s been there all along. The gags and jokes have been positioned slightly askew, eschewing commercial slickness for something a little weirder, rougher around the edges. Lipton & Co. are willing to sacrifice some easy laughs for something that functions more as unsettlement. It’s not that I think they want to undercut the humor; more-so, it’s that Jarmusch effect. It’s a little off in an interesting way. Testing out metaphors, I settled on how it sounds when you’re using an older radio that has a dial tuner instead of a button one, which sometimes makes it impossible to arrive at the exact frequency of the radio station. Tumacho is willfully fuzzy around the edges.
The weirdest plot point is also the most central one. Set up for a savior, we instead get… a demon? It turns out that the titular Tumacho is in fact a demon ghost, who returns to the town every few generations to inhabit one of its dwellers and wreak havoc. This introduces a whole new genre – ghost story slash horror film I guess? The play remains a Western, but the antics swell to engage with this new element.
Going the madcap adventure route, the play and plot barrel perilously on. Each event, like a Newton’s cradle, needs to create enough force for the next event to happen. This system clanks in parts, most particularly during the demon-centric portions. This is possibly because we simply don’t know how these two genres work together, and therefore can’t readily anticipate the next move? I wouldn’t call it a flaw, but I’m not sure it’s intended as the feature either. The form is intriguingly unwieldy.
Oh, and there are songs dropped in, here and there. It’s not billed as a musical, which seems right. One song emerges out of a conversation about the meaning of the word “ineffable.” The musical portions function more as rest stops than plot drivers. The actors are uniformly adept while in song, but are obviously more at home playing with the eccentricity of the play’s language. Aided by the direction of Leigh Silverman, their uniform detailed specificity is a joy. The long-form gag of drinking an entire glass of water, the perfect stoicism in the face of absurd happenings and dialogue, and a bit with a letter used ineffectively as chloroform all land successfully and memorably. The world of the play is a veritable playground for gags, and less-attuned performers would play too hard, gum up the works. The performative balance between absurdity and pathos here works perfectly.
There’s a happy ending, of course, and then another one, and another one. The final sequences play like the outtakes after a movie comedy, yet we welcome them. One more shaggy element to add to our collection.