Running Scared

If you believe the media, America has become a very scary place. So frightful, in fact, that we could all use a blue spandex "superpower fear-fighting suit" like the one Tamarie Cooper sports in Tamalalia 9. The getup comes with a shiny, silver, fear-fighting tool belt, a fierce little cape, sparkly power cuffs and a pair of the coolest sneakers ever made. But cool is standard issue from the Tamalalia series.

In each of the past nine years, the creatively goofy talents at Infernal Bridegroom Productions have come together to whip up yet another silly summer confection devoted to the strange inner life of Cooper, Tamalalia's creator/director and redheaded star. The results have usually been laugh-till-your-face-hurts funny. And No. 9 delivers so many laughs, it's hard not to forgive the show's creators for their unusually timid approach to the subject at hand, namely fear and the crazy things it makes us do.

The show's opening is classic: The production is announced, a spotlight appears and Tamarie is introduced -- but the stage remains empty. After repeating the sequence once more, stagehands go searching for the star, who's hiding in the wings. She's pulled into the light screaming that she's "afraid of this show." This self-referential intro quickly transitions into the opening number, "Fear Is All Around," featuring the entire cast in a big brassy show tune that's energetic, if not terrifically inventive.

Dr. Grendelsteinhakhakhakweezen-pfft, played with cartoony delight by Paul Locklear in geeky black glasses and a white lab coat, offers Tamarie a way to conquer her fears: his marvelous fear-fighting suit, which, he promises, will help her "get over it."

Wearing the suit, Tamarie travels back to the moment her fearfulness started, when she watched a scary B-movie full of vampires and mummies. We learn that Tamarie's inventive hippie parents tried to assuage her sleepless childhood nights by saying not to worry, that the monsters were on vacation. A hilarious, funky country-sounding tune called "(It's a) Monster's Vacation," sung by A.J. Ware and Cary Winscott, conjures vampires sunning themselves at the beach and mummies hanging out together.

One of the silliest numbers is "The Vampire's Folk Dance," performed by the company's wildest clown, Kyle Sturdivant. Turns out the scary vampire has his own childhood fears, which started when he was laughed at by his village for wanting to become a folk dancer instead of a vampire.

"It's Awesome to Be Smart" reveals her fear of college -- specifically, a class run by a professor named Smarty Pants, played by a hysterically fascist Walt Zipprian. Smarty Pants demoralizes Tamarie as he strokes and smells his favorite student's pigtails.

But the real showstopper is "Physical Ed," about Tamarie's horror of gym class. Jeff Miller, Tek Wilson and Sturdivant play PE bullies from Tamarie's past who return for a rematch. The contest is run by Coach Gascamp (a wicked Noel Bowers), who delights in referring to Tamarie as "Mamarie Pooper." Dead-on timing and sharp direction make this number so funny, the audience I saw it with was stomping and hooting. Only Tamarie can't hit the ball, and she gets twisted up during calisthenics. The contest culminates in the one-mile run, performed in slow motion to the soundtrack of Chariots of Fire while strobe lights flash. It's a race that will have you weeping with glee.

But near the top of Act II, the show start to go south. Things are promising at first: The entire cast sings "Culture of Fear," and everything from the government to the media to mad cow disease comes up. But just as the show seems to be moving into some timely stuff, Tamarie stops it, declaring she doesn't know where to go from here. This familiar shtick -- it's been used in other Tamalalias -- is disappointing. Truthfully, the script writers haven't backed themselves into a hole at all. Indeed, they've suddenly moved into a landscape rich with potential. But Tamarie claims she's afraid of getting too serious and worried about offending her audience -- some of whom might be Republicans! So the entire cast breaks into a weird, diversionary rendition of Oklahoma!

This scaredy-cat position undermines the entire second act. The show goes on to discuss Tamarie's biggest current fear: driving. There's even a silent film that shows her venturing into the streets of Houston. But nothing that follows Oklahoma! comes close to the zany comedic heights of Act I. In the end it's fear, the very thing this show sets out to conquer, that gets the best of Tamalalia 9.

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Lee Williams