Party Hearty

Infernal Bridegroom Productions calls its red-haired, voluptuous, sassy-lipped actress Tamarie Cooper the "Lucille Ball of the Houston theater set." But with her new play Tamalalia 3, currently at Stages Theatre, Cooper proves that her thoughtfully ironic though thoroughly silly and self-deprecating imagination might be more closely aligned with early Woody Allen, that bespectacled creator of Bananas, Sleeper and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.

Ms. Cooper "conceived," directed and choreographed this weird and charming piece, which includes such ridiculous characters as the Roach King, Mortando the Clown, a roller-skating fairy godmother and a fascist shrink who zaps his patients with electric juice for such minor psychological infractions as roach phobias.

Ostensibly, the show is about party preparations. It follows Cooper as she suffers her middle-class way through company-is-coming-over jitters. After concocting her own dip out of overcooked soup, she gets a new "do" by favorite confidant and hairdresser extraordinaire Frank, visits her spooky shrink and spends the entire evening gnashing her teeth in a mad search for the perfect party frock. But beneath the surface of this seemingly meaningless (though truly funny) production are the beginnings of a much deeper idea.

With postmodern self-consciousness, the play explores the gaps between the public and private self. As soon as Cooper turns to the audience, welcoming them into her apartment, she must acknowledge the obvious: that the set is not her real place, just a mockup. But, she argues, the table on stage is her real table, and Cooper herself "really did" make the dip. This struggle to somehow bring the hidden private self out into a public arena is at the heart of all the song-and-dance shenanigans unfolding on stage. And Cooper, in her self-deprecating and utterly lovable way, reveals herself to be struggling to create what most all of us are struggling to create in this era of Jerry Springer -- an acceptable public persona.

Even in her dreams, she's influenced by the cover of People magazine. To make matters worse, she is a member of the indulged Generation X, and her only obvious problem is her dread of roaches (this phobia comes to wacky cartoon life when six-foot, antennaed bugs do a little roachy jig around her bed).

Thus, she implies that her private self is not much deeper than the public self. The show is smart, subtle and really funny. The only disappointing aspect of the evening is that it ends (it lasts only an hour) long before it can fully explore the questions it raises.

Including such amazing songs as "The Ass Ballad" and "Roach King Duet," the original score by William Harris and the lyrics by Greg Stanley are witty and endearing. The on-stage orchestra is lively and does some fast banter with Cooper. Especially strong are the irreverent conversations between Tamarie and Harris, who conducts as he tickles the ivories, a la the Rosie O'Donnell show.

The cast, composed of many of the usual IBPers, is adequate; only the too serious, too pretty, "real" dancers seem occasionally out of sync with the spirit of the show.

As Cooper's best friend and wardrobe adviser, Sarah Mitchell creates one of the evening's funniest scenes. After Tamarie picks out a skin-tight skirt and worms her wonderfully ample fanny into it, Mitchell agonizes over how to respond, singing, "If I didn't love you I'd lie.... Choose an outfit with class, so no one would see your round ass." Jim Parsons's sadistically psychotic psychiatrist and Greg Stanley's fairy in drag (yes, they are punning) also make for some hilarious moments -- Stanley gets in a great line about being in the closet.

Clever technical touches are often as much fun as the performers. For instance, the foreboding Roach King wears glittered bug-eye glasses, and there's a spinning, dream-inducing twin bed on rollers. Then there are the cut-out clouds and lightning rods the actors carry out during a rain storm, insinuated by a dripping mop; the actors leap and jump, clouds in hand, when the thunder rolls. And when aliens descend, a band guy is good enough to hang a tiny flying saucer from a stick.

The apartment set, where Cooper plans her party, is wonderfully kitschy, with a silk fuchsia divan on which she is sometimes carted about, Cleopatra style. The '50s-style fridge -- with a fat white door that swings open to serve as a wacky entrance for the actors -- is clever, as is a butter-colored armoire containing an endless supply of tacky dresses. The floor itself is fabulous, with painted-on pink and green linoleum.

Farcical and funny, Tamalalia 3 succeeds where many other like-minded shows have failed. Tamarie Cooper has managed to put together an adult production that is silly, goofy, raunchy, sexy, ironic, intelligent and generous-hearted all at once.

Next year, when it's time for Tamalalia 4, my only wish is that she keep working to create deeper, longer, larger pieces. In simpler terms: Please, Miss, may we have some more?

Tamalalia 3 plays through August 29, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52


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