By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
Infernal Bridegroom Productions' red-lipped funny-lady Tamarie Cooper spent a decade accumulating fans with her hilariously silly Tamalalia series. Cooper herself was always the annual summer show's main character, and the wonderfully absurd story lines sent her off on grand Lucille Ball-esque adventures that involved everything from time-traveling Sit ‘n' Spins to singing strips of bacon. She went to Hollywood in one story and The Woodlands in another, always looking for love, identity and a really good meal. Lots of song and dance ensued during our voluptuous heroine's quixotic searches. Over the years, the productions grew in popularity, eventually becoming a highlight of the season. Playing to sold-out houses, they became the much-needed breeze of creative fresh air theater lovers need at the end of a long, hot summer filled with yawn-inducing, family-friendly offerings.
It's been two years since the final Tamalalia came and went, and Houstonians will be happy to learn that Cooper has regrouped and come up with a new concept-driven piece, a “variety show” called Twenty Love Songs. And though it isn't nearly as cohesive or as well-developed as her Tamalalias, fans will recognize Cooper's supreme sense of the bizarre in many of the “songs” featured here.
Love is the obvious focus of the show, but its scenes are connected only by theme. There is no story. The best moments are hysterical, but they don't happen during the songs. The funniest piece of the night, called “Young Love,” features Cooper and Jennifer Mathieu Blessington perched on bar stools at either end of the stage, facing the audience as they read from their old diaries. The brilliant simplicity of the setup leaves room for a riot of sweet humor. These two women were very different girls, as their diaries reveal, but both were as angst-driven as any American adolescent. Blessington's journal is full of he-said/she-said gossip, delivered by the writer with all the earnest import of a nerdy girl working through a girlhood crush, trying to figure out the goofy behavior of teenage boys. Cooper's diary, on the other hand, is full of overwrought histrionics. Her world shimmers with the kind of lonely despair that defines high school drama queens. This is laugh-out-loud stuff. Together, Cooper and Blessington have created a perfect reminder of how deliciously awful adolescent love can be.
Another strong piece is “Food Love,” featuring Cooper and Kyle Sturdivant, who play two fast-food gourmands scarfing down hamburgers, French fries and Cheez Whiz. At the end of the meal, they reach a sort of climax, slathering on food and covering themselves and the stage with the detritus of their gluttony.
“Love and Sandwiches” features a couple at loggerheads over sex. She wants to; he doesn't. The man argues that monogamy is monotonous sort of like sandwiches. “If I had to eat bologna sandwiches all the time,” he reasons, “I'd be bored.” Over the course of the scene, the man is presented with other sexual options; in the end, he realizes that bologna really isn't so bad after all.
But while some scenes are hysterical, others are just head-scratchers. The skit called “(An Untitled Skit about a Woman's Complex Relationship With her Vibrator)” has a promising title, but the scene, written and performed by Amy Bruce and George Parker, is mostly just plain odd. A woman's vibrator comes to life and tells her all about his love of demolition derbies. The title is much funnier than the piece, which moves beyond the boundaries of the absurd and into the outer limits of the pointless.
Other problems happen when the material gets serious. In a movement sequence called “Grief,” Cooper does a sort of modern dance to some beautiful lines of poetry by Pablo Neruda. The piece is surprisingly effective, but it's much too refined for this show. Seriousness slips into sentimentality when Blessington comes back to read from her grown-up diary in “The Most Important Thing.” As an adult teaching in a middle school, Blessington observes her students enacting what she herself went through and sees the universality of it all. This coming-full-circle idea feels very Hallmark in a show that's supposed to be edgy.
Had Cooper and company cut Twenty Love Songs to one hour, it would be a great activity for a weekend night. But as it is, the show has a bit of a high school talent-show quality. It's as though Cooper didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings, so she let all her friends on the stage. While Jodi Bobrovsky's set is lovely, and at moments the production shines with Cooper's familiar brilliance, too much of this isn&'t nearly as good as what we all know Cooper is capable of producing.