Camping with Gasoline: A Hilarious One-Man Show by a Texas Treasure

Read our interview with Jaston Williams.

The set-up:

Jaston Williams, acclaimed co-author and star of Greater Tuna, takes on the role of storyteller as he regales his audience with memories of his childhood, and of a memorable trip to Guatemala.

The execution:

The stage is almost bare, with a table with a water glass on it, a white chair, and two music stands at either side of the stage. While the press photo shows amusing garb, Williams is appropriately dressed in a grey suit, removing his coat for the second act. This is not the Vera Carp of Greater Tuna, a signature role for Williams, but instead a performer in the vein of Spalding Grey, autobiographical monologist, who made this ancient genre newly fashionable with Swimming to Cambodia.

Williams is part artist, part Renaissance man, as he moves easily from writer to actor, and combines these talents to mine his own experiences to generate stage pieces. He is a gifted performer, knowing his audiences well and on very good terms with them. His rapport is immediate and compelling, the memories are invariably amusing, his comic timing is impeccable, and the result is sheer pleasure at watching a master at work.

The first of three segments covers his mother and Christmas memories, and combines nostalgia for the innocence of youth with an interesting portrait of family dynamics. In portraying his mother, Williams uses his gift for mimicry to telling effect, and also creates a sharp picture of himself as a child of eight, feisty, challenging and with a sense of justice that Williams has carried into adulthood. The segment is hilarious.

Equally compelling is the second segment, involving a trip by bus to climb a volcano in Guatemala. The bus is filled with German tourists, and their Teutonic behavior comes in for some gentle sallies -- and some less gentle. Williams's gift for interesting detail serves him well here, and his writing is striking for its tone of amused acceptance of the rigors of traveling, including the strong possibility of being kidnapped. He manages to shoehorn in some reminiscences of his brother Corky, diminutive in height but with the strength and courage of a lion, and I'm delighted he did, since these are priceless.

After an intermission, Williams returns for the third and final segment, covering childhood experiences in first the Cub Scouts and then the Boy Scouts. These are a shade less successful, and some moments seem more embellished than authentic, but still provide their share of rich humor. Williams has honed his story-telling abilities with previous one-man shows I'm Not Lying and Cowboy Noises; these were directed by Scott Kanoff, who directed the current production as well.

There are a number of moments when Williams goes to the music stands at either side of the stage to read passages. Director Kanoff might consider having Williams memorize these instead of reading them, as this remarkable performer has the audience following every nuance, but loses his grip on them when he turns his attention to the script on the music stand.

The verdict:

This tri-partite monologue pays off wonderfully in humor and tone, and allows one of the artistic treasures of Texas to use his writing and acting skills in a one-man tour de force that is fascinating, captivating, and largely hilarious.

Cooking with Gasoline was performed on Saturday, June 16, at Galveston's The Grand 1894 Opera House. It may well "have legs," and I hope future productions are in the works.

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Jim Tommaney