Down the Road

There are rare moments in theater when the line between art and life fades and the twain meet. Tamarie Cooper knows about that line, and about that meeting, and in Tamalalia Two she greets them with a martini in hand. Two, as the name implies, is a follow-up to Tamalalia!, which premiered last spring at the Orange Show. The first Tamalalia was a rather wistful look at Miss (as she insists) Cooper's dating and dining existence. There was a dancing fashion show that covered three decades of polyester, running monologues from Cooper about the travails of love and a pasta dinner for the audience following -- and, in a way, as part of -- the show. Not surprisingly, Tamalalia! was a hit. This year, the tradition of twining show business with Cooper's personal history continues on a bus, with various performance stops along the way.

There is much to attract audiences to Tamalalia Two, not the least of which is Cooper herself: a fine actress, a lively choreographer and a snappy dresser. Beyond Cooper's charisma, however, is the nostalgic lure of a field trip, the goofy fun of sing-alongs (which include selections from Barry Manilow and Grease) and tour stops at Houston landmark novelties such as the Beer Can House, the Flower Man House and the Home of Easy Credit. The result of a daydream on a Metro bus ride, Cooper's Tamalalia Two is something like a vaudeville revue, appealing to anyone who ever had affection for show tunes, character ballet or shirtwaist dresses. Perhaps the show's biggest draw is how easily the audience becomes a part of the proceedings. As Cooper turns her life into her art, she takes a willing audience along.

The show is a memorable ride, literally: It takes place on a rented school bus. As passengers gather to board at the Zocalo Theater, Cooper circulates through the crowd in a black chiffon gown, directing pedestrian traffic with a dainty black megaphone. Armed with their activity kits, audience members giggle foolishly while waiting in line and choosing their seat buddies. And why not? Tamalalia Two is performance in the purest sense of the word. Cooper and her crew of two actresses, one actor and a musician take the front of the bus, while the audience fills the remaining seats. As everyone gets settled, Cooper leads her supporting quartet into neatly swank versions of TV theme songs.

As is usually the case in a Cooper show, dance plays a cohesive role. Lara Heiberg, Tricia Moreau Sweeney and Armando Orduna all offer crisp performances and fine dramatic moments. After two brief pauses at the Beer Can House -- the bus turning and stopping so that passengers on each side get a good viewing angle -- the trip proceeds to what the program identifies as "Cul de sac/Sunny Pasture." It's here the excitement really begins. After debarking into the pasture, the audience is treated to a Jerome Robbins meets Twyla Tharp car accident -- injury-free -- and a mad cow ballet. The car accident includes real cars, and lots of tension-ridden standoffs. The dancers appear to be melting off the hood of one of the vehicles by the accident's end, gooey with goodwill for each other. It's a nice piece of work.

There isn't a transition into the mad cow dance (unless the "cows" grazing in the background during the accident count) and it isn't missed. Outfitted in tiny Holstein-patterned hats and socks on their hands, the cow ballerinas create a bucolic tableau for Miss Cooper, the Queen Holstein, still wearing her black chiffon and high heels. Using the documentary style of nature shows, actor Andy Nelson, who meets and greets the audience at the pasture, narrates a tragic story of how the cows descend into madness. ("The very word bovine," he notes, "speaks with ease their phlegmatic lot.") Sweet as they are, the cow ballerinas are made to dance a little too long. It's hot outside, and the day-trippers want to get back on the bus sooner than they're allowed to.

Perhaps the best-crafted dance segment takes place at the tour's next stop, the Home of Easy Credit, an unlikely downtown landmark on Main near Preston that was once a Sakowitz and is now a coffee shop. On a couch whose history is detailed by Miss Cooper, the troupe performs a work titled "Things That Happen On a Couch." The sensibility is silent film: lovers become bold on the couch, children jump on it, roommates fight for a place to sit. Then lemonade is served and everyone gets back on the bus.

The show's minor fault -- and frankly, the audience simply doesn't mind -- is an overabundance of filler material, some of which plays stiffly. Cooper and crew make the most out of turning sharp corners, yelling "Corner!" and miming great physical distress. There are other, better bits of business. While traveling down Main Street, Cooper offers a fashion show in the bus's center aisle. I wish, as was the case in Tamalalia!, that this fashion parade were tied into some sort of narrative, a kind of "here's what happened when I wore my red bell-bottom pants" thing. Instead, it's more of a side note.

Aware of how important it is for a glamour girl to remain glamorous, Cooper makes costume changes -- once on the bus -- and keeps up a witty patter with her cohorts, most notably Sarah Mitchell and Dewitt Gravink, both of whom make coy companions. Strolling down the aisle telling deadpan jokes or singing like an out-of-towner at a New York audition, Cooper never fails to hold her passengers' attention.

Throughout, there's much demanded audience participation in terms of group singing, rounds and other musical trinkets. But if one is melodically impaired, there's always the option of ducking behind a seat and chatting with your buddy.

All field trips come to an end, and Tamalalia Two comes to a festive one with a sack lunch or dinner and a band at the Zocalo home base. Following the arrival at Zocalo, there are more dance numbers, but as all graduates of elementary school know, the show's over once you get off the bus. In this case, and largely because of Cooper's diverse talents, the trip is more than worth the ride.

Tamalalia Two boards through May 18 at the Zocalo Theater, 5223 Feagan, 935-2008.

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Megan Halverson