Out of the Woods

Yes folks, it's that time again. Once a year, as certain as the glimmering glow of the summer solstice, another episode of Tamarie Cooper's kitschy, kooky ongoing and ever-changing show, Tamalalia, comes along.

For the uninitiated, this hodgepodge of tawdry silliness began back in 1996. Infernal Bridegroom Productions' Tamarie Cooper cooked up the original Tamalalia, a wildly successful fusion of music, dance, fashion show and dinner that had audiences standing all evening in the Houston heat just to see the thing. The following year she outdid herself, putting the production on a traveling school bus and throwing in skits called "Things That Happen on a Couch" and "The Mad Cow Ballet." In her next hit, Tamalalia 3: The Cocktail Party, Tamarie and company dreamed up some stunning costume changes, a righteous score of original music and a rather randy bedroom scene featuring those two jail-bait hunks, the princes of England. Martinis and hors d'oeuvres were offered up afterward to her adoring audience.

Now, Tamalalia 4: The Camp-Out, at Stages Theatre, miraculously manages to pick up the story right where it left off last year. And it proves that the ever-bubbling spring of Cooper's utterly goofy imagination seems to flow eternal.

In Tamalalia 4, the preshow announcer wears a plastic hot-dog hat, a ridiculously lame yet hysterical image that sets the tone.

Tamarie (she plays herself in these shows) enters, still at last year's cocktail party. Martini glass in hand, she laughs and giggles and is surrounded by beautiful people. But alas, all great Bacchanalian bashes must eventually come to an end. Tamarie flashes on to a life-changing epiphany: Her whirlwind, party-hearty lifestyle is vapid, meaningless folderol. What she needs most in her life is something meaningful, substantial and truthful. She needs to find herself.

And what better way to discover one's hidden inner life than to go tromping into the wilderness -- imagine a sort of Freudian/Jungian journey into the woods.

Tamarie, an ever-urban girl who loves retro satin dresses and velvety black high heels, packs up and goes camping! But not without the right clothes. A special outdoor fashion show is in order, one that features a big floppy dress that looks an awful lot like a bright orange tent, and a strange suit of critter-ridden moss, then a tangled mess of a fishnet sweetly called the "bridal ensemble." The clever costume designs of Jodi Bobrovsky never seemed so, well, organic. Tamarie manages to end up in a chic little number smattered with brown and green woodsy things that go perfectly with her little brown boots. We all should look so good while trudging through nature.

Then it's deep into the woods she goes. Besides the fact that the trees, bushes and animals dance and spin about, her journey is at first accompanied by the most bucolic yet strangely foreboding music imaginable. This forest is just too damned perfect for comfort. Even the Girl Scouts are on hand. Of course, these are the kung fu-fighting Girl Scouts from Hell. Played by a lovely Lauren Kern, Jeanne Harris and Rebecca Lowe, these beanie-wearing Amazon cookie sellers are ready to kickbox to the end.

Thankfully, Ranger Andy, played with an ever ironic and hugely intelligent wit by Andy Nelson, is there to guide Tamarie through her trek, advising her of such truisms as "never, never eat anything which has not been properly identified and determined to be safe!" Tamarie, though, is on a journey of self-discovery that insists she break a few rules. Thus, she cannot possibly be held accountable for nibbling on a handful of lovely-looking tangerine-colored berries -- berries that induce major life-altering hallucinations.

A huge blue Papa Smurf (Noel Bowers) appears, as do characters from The Crucible and Deliverance. When hockey mask-wearing Jason steps out of the woods and into Tamarie's world, we know we've landed right in the middle of a pop culture meltdown. The von Trapp children crawl down from their mountains, accompanied by dancing bears that get down and funky with a long, funny and energetic dance spun from an eclectic mix of the tango, disco, rap, trash rock, a waltz, ballet, swing and who knows what else.

An aging, angry Goldilocks (Mia Fisher) stumbles from the bushes, singing her woes about life and love. Fisher's Goldilocks, whose gorgeous voice and vampy strut steal any stage she walks across, is a far cry from storybook land. Singing, "My last prince was a queen, if you know what I mean" and "There's no happily-ever-after to it," she makes it clear that no modern girl should want to live her life in a fairy tale.

Hippies lead a round of "Kum Ba Yah" that nobody can remember the words to. "Someone's being bitchy, my Lord, Kum Ba Yah," is one of the lines improvised by Tamarie and company for that eternally annoying campfire tune.

Eventually Tamarie tromps through her forest of self-discovery, falling in love along the way with Ranger Andy. Of course, after six months in the forest ranger's cabin, Tamarie has grown a beard, knitted an entire caftan and realized she's "a Montrose girl" who needs city life to make her happy. The relationship seems doomed until an answer falls from above (literally) in the form of a pamphlet advertising The Woodlands. Ranger Andy and Tamarie and all her woodsy friends decide to move to The Woodlands. And thus ends this installment of Tamalalia. Hot dogs and beer are then served on the patio.

Tamalalia 4 is a roaring good romp through Tamarie's inner psyche. While this show might not be as fully realized as last year's Cocktail Party, composer William Harris and lyricist Greg Stanley have done a fine job with a pastoral pastiche of satirical images. And Cooper is as clever as ever.

Next year's venture into The Woodlands promises to be the most exciting Tamalalia, full of political brouhaha and delicious satire. The Tamalalia series is one of the few things that make Houston's searing summers fun.

Tamalalia 4: The Camp-Out runs through June 26 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)522-8443. $10-$15.


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