While the exact origins of the art form we call theater are debatable, most folks would agree that theater emerged from ritual.
Early societies had various ceremonies to ensure successful crops or to ward off enemies. They told myths about supernatural forces or heroic figures and the repetition of these stories over time paved the way for theater.
It may seem a bit highfalutin, but I found myself thinking about myth, ritual and tradition at The Gaslight Theatre's latest production, The Lone Stranger. The musical revue riffs off the iconic 1950s television show The Lone Ranger, about a masked man who fights for justice in the Old West.
The show serves all the functions of ancient ritual: It retells a mythic story about a heroic figure. It brings people together in a festive atmosphere, complete with food, drink and merrymaking. And like all Gaslight productions, The Lone Stranger preserves cultural traditions by celebrating forms of entertainment—vaudeville, musical revue, classic television—that have fallen by the wayside elsewhere.
In typical Gaslight style, Peter Van Slyke, the writer and director, spoofs the well-known Lone Ranger tale and adds in live music, dancing and lots of contemporary pop-culture jokes. For instance, our Lone Stranger, played by Todd Thompson on the night I saw the show, goes by the name Cade Winslow. But the rest of the cast keeps referring to him as Kate Winslet and telling him how much they enjoyed his film Titanic.
One of the best parts of The Lone Stranger is watching Thompson's serious hero banter with Joe Cooper, who plays his irreverent sidekick, Tonka. When they venture off script, they get even better.
Cooper has improvised his own Gaslight tradition. If you've seen a show with him in it, you know that at a certain point, he's going to deviate from the script, eschewing his lines in favor of off-the-cuff remarks. Cooper "forgets" his lines, then jokes about it and tries to make his fellow actors break character by laughing. And every time, these moments get huge laughs from the audience.
You'd have to be pretty stone-hearted not to crack a smile at the show's mixture of silly jokes, melodrama, song and dance. (Basic but fun choreography is provided by Sarah Vanek).
The scenery is deliberately old-fashioned too. Designer Tom Benson and his technical staff make no attempt at realism, but their stage work—which includes flying axes, horses and a moving stagecoach—runs like clockwork.
Live music is provided by the excellent Linda Ackermann, the company musical director, on piano; Blake Matthies on bass guitar; and Adam Ackermann on drums.
In true mythic fashion, Gaslight has put on The Lone Stranger many times. While the show changes a bit with every incarnation, Stranger is one of the company's staples. Actor Jake Chapman, who plays the Durango Kid, notes in his actor's bio that The Lone Stranger was the first Gaslight show he ever saw.
Many of the actors have worked with the company for a long time. Van Slyke signed on for the first Tucson season in 1978. Two of The Lone Stranger's cast members have been with Gaslight for 30 years: Armen Dirtadian, who plays the villain, Craven, and Cooper, who takes on the role of Tonka.
All this together make Gaslight's shows a local ritual, if you will, with deep local roots. Ancient Greek plays—one of the earliest forms of theater—were performed to honor the god Dionysus, the deity of wine, excess and general good times. There's no excess at Gaslight shows—this is a family establishment, after all—but you can order wine, beer and eats from the adjacent Little Anthony's Diner.
In true ritual fashion, the production follows the time-honored Gaslight pattern. Before the show, the musical trio encourages you to sing along to well-known country songs. The sing-along is followed by the show proper; you can eat your dinner, sip on your drink, or simply nibble your free bowl of popcorn as you follow the antics of the mock-heroic Lone Stranger. After the show, if it's your birthday or anniversary, you get free ice cream, and those who have served in the armed forces are given a round of applause.
There's an "Olio Act" at the end, in which the Lone Stranger cast comes back as performers in an old variety show, Hee Haw. While the singing and dancing in the Olio is always impressive, it's a little too much, like having an extra helping of apple pie when you should have stuck to just one.
But the Olio is part of the tradition, and everything runs a certain way at a Gaslight show. There's a comforting familiarity to that.
Keep the ritual alive by paying The Lone Stranger a visit.