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'Greater Tuna' vet goes 'Camping With Gasoline'

Posted 8:33am on Sunday, Nov. 04, 2012

We are told that in comedy, timing is everything.

By that measure, Camping With Gasoline, the new one-man show written and performed by Greater Tuna co-creator Jaston Williams, both hits and misses.

Certainly, nothing was wrong with his comic timing when he delivered his text in the first of two performances at Casa Mañana on Saturday. The well-seasoned jester from the Panhandle knows how to maintain the right rhythms and cadences even when working alone.

The structure of this show, directed by Scott Kanoff, is much more literary than theatrical. The program notes tell us that Williams is working on a novel, and this recitation sounds like three of its chapters. Sporting a gray suit and working on a stage set with only three chairs and two music stands holding scripts, Williams rolls out three "mostly true" stories that chart his path from being a boy to becoming the adoptive parent of a boy.

The first is a Greater Tuna-esque Christmas ramble called "Blood and Holly," in which Williams makes clear that his clan could easily have inspired Robert Earl Keen's dysfunctional holiday classic, Merry Christmas from the Family. The presentation, during which Williams moves from chair to chair, sometimes reading, sometimes pacing, is much more like a staged reading of a book or short story than a comedic monologue. Overall, this slaying of some of Yuletide's most sacred cows (he unflinchingly throws Burl Ives under Santa's sled, for example) comes across like Jean Shepherd-comes-to-the-prairie.

The second, "Saved by the Boy," is a funny, but ultimately touching, account of his journey to fatherhood -- an odyssey that took him far beyond his native West Texas. As in the other segments, Williams sets the scene with prosaic descriptions. Then he populates these stories with colorful characters. He makes us think that this is what Garrison Keillor would sound like had he grown up in Lubbock instead of in the middle of all those lakes.

In the final story, however, Williams' timing is off -- albeit through no fault of his own.

That reminiscence, which gives this stage work its title and constitutes the second act, reaches back to Williams' days as a Boy Scout. The chronicle is filled with hilarious rites of passage and inept scouting. But the point is Williams' memory of how he and his cohorts unexpectedly emerged as grief counselors for one of their fellows at camp.

The story is well-told and filled with heart. But, sad to say, recent revelations have cast the Boy Scouts in a new light. So there is an unintended undercurrent of discomfort in hearing accounts of less-than-perfect scoutmasters, though their faults are not related to the sort of issues that have arisen lately.

We may need some time before we can fully enjoy this show. Williams hints at that when his script acknowledges some old controversies related to the scouts and urges us not to lose sight of the good things about the organization.

So maybe we can completely embrace this segment at a later date. But till then, the timing is just not right for the largest third of this otherwise laugh-filled bit of personal nostalgia.

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