Chuckles in Disguise

The laughs are in abundance--though a bit late in arriving--in Gaslight's "Lone Stranger"

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear ... about five years ago, the last time Gaslight Theatre presented its Lone Ranger send-up, The Lone Stranger, or Trigger Happy! Well, Trigger isn't in this revival, and, more pertinently, neither is Silver. The steed has been renamed Thunder, and it's not exactly a "fiery horse with the speed of light"; it's a cardboard cut-out that stays in place while the background scenery scrolls left.

Yes, it's another intentionally hokey Gaslight show, complete with low-budget special effects (but some pretty good arrow and tomahawk work); misappropriated pop, country and even blues songs; groan-inducing puns; and a welcome tendency of some of the actors to stray from the not exactly Pulitzer-level script.

The one major fault of this production--which is common to Gaslight shows written and directed by Peter VanSlyke--is that the tone of the first scene is muted. The writing sticks closely to the formulas of the old Western melodramas that inspire all things Gaslight, and the contemporary jokiness doesn't set in until about halfway through the first act. It's as if VanSlyke just can't bring himself to mix comedy with exposition. At least the early beats move more swiftly here than they sometimes do; the situation develops quickly, and the initial songs are short and to the point. Once our hero shows up on his silly horse, and Joe Cooper begins ad-libbing his way through the role of the Indian sidekick, everything finally eases into Gaslight goofiness.

You'll know the basics of this story if you're at all familiar with Lone Ranger lore. A valiant Texas Ranger named Cade Winslow (the locals keep confusing him with Kate Winslet) foils a horse-rustling scheme, but the perpetrators later gun him down in the streets of Laredo. Winslow (played by the gregariously manly Todd Thompson) is taken to an undisclosed location and nursed back to health by an Indian scout named Tonka (Cooper); his big medicine seems to consist primarily of Bactine. Tonka provides Winslow with a new horse, new copper bullets, a new disguise and a new identity: the Lone Stranger, whom Tonka affectionately calls "Caminowasabi."

Immediately, our hero and his companion ride back into town to contend with the bad guys, a shady fellow named Craven (the dark and suave Robert Shaw) and his gun for hire, the not particularly bright Dead Eye Dawson (David Orley, especially good here as the crusty scoundrel). They're trying to take over a ranch owned by cowgirl Nellie (Sarah Vanek, who knows how to bring backbone to an ingénue role); the ranch foreman is a former gunslinger trying to make things right (the appealing Mike Yarema).

On the side of good is saloon owner Diamond Lil (Betsy Kruse-Craig, vamping her way through the role with aplomb). Siding with the bad guys is a showgirl named Ruby (played with a dangerous streak by Rebecca Carlson on the night I attended). There's also an unnecessary bystander named Doc (Charlie Hall); this character has no effect on the action and doesn't even provide comic relief. It's an utter waste of Hall's talent.

The song-and-dance-and-joke olio following the main show is inspired, if that's the proper word, by the TV show Hee Haw. Well, Gaslight did Laugh-In a few months ago, so it's only fair to take on the country cousin, too. Hall actually resembles Roy Clark, but nothing is made of that after the opening ensemble number. He does come back later, though, with a good Freddy Fender impersonation, and a pretty serious one at that, not sending up the more unusual elements of Fender's style.

Orley is a good stand-in for Tennessee Ernie Ford in "Sixteen Tons." The women in the cast have their way with some country-Western standards, and the men (headed by Cooper as Grandpa Jones) deliver the usual round of groan-inducing old jokes.

The indomitable little Gaslight Band, led by Linda Ackermann, keeps things rolling through the two-hour show, and Nancy LaViola's choreography, as usual, makes good use of limited space and variable human