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Theatre in Review: Thunderbodies (Soho Rep)

Deirdre O'Connell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

This, more or less, is the premise of Thunderbodies: The United States has just ended a war in another country, leaving it blasted to bits. Mitigating the sense of triumph that might accompany such an event is an outbreak of drastic climate change. As a result, we are told, "All the creatures of the earth are mating. Earthworms are mating with hawks giving birth to hawkworms. Buffalo are mating with butterflies, giving birth to buffalowings. Whales are mating with salmon, giving birth to whamon."

The military is being demobilized, but one soldier, known as Boy, refuses to stop fighting. The President, an unusually nervous, excitable sort, keeps sending drones to the war zone, threatening to kill Boy if he doesn't cooperate. Meanwhile, Grotilde, Boy's mother, who has completed her life's work of losing six hundred and ten pounds, makes a connection with Michail, a general for whom a desk is the preferred theatre of war. However, cognizant that most marriages end in divorce, he and Grotilde decide to skip the preliminaries and being with the legal sundering of their not-yet-begun relationship.

But before they can celebrate their separation, Grotilde dispatches Michail to the unnamed war-torn country to retrieve Boy. Devising a way to travel safely through dangerous terrain, Michail says, "My plan is to disguise myself as a crab cake. A crab that eats a lot of cake" -- at which point he reveals himself dressed in red Roman warrior skirt, red helmet, and crab claw mitts. Later, because I don't know why, he is seen trapped under a rock, flailing badly.

Here's a random list of things that are said and done in Thunderbodies: Michail, making his first entrance, addresses the audience with: "I have a thunderbelly/Thunderbelly/Thunderbelly/I have a thunderbelly/Thunderbelly, thigh/Belly/Belly/Belly ho ho, belly hi." Grotilde, eyeing Michail, says, "You are but a cotton swab/covered in ear guck, a flimsy prole tool./Is there even anything between your legs?" He replies, "It is small but steadfast." Envisioning the divorce ceremony, Grotilde says that guests "will feast and drink until the liquids flow together from their nether holes." Later, Michail tells her, "We have a serious matter to discuss/It has taken the wind out of my sails and the crack out of my butt." Grotilde, instructing Michail in the retrieval of Boy, says "Drag him by his underear. That is his weak spot. I know, I birthed him out the wrong hole."

There's more: The President, via drone, spots Boy, who gets down on all fours and wiggles his rear end. "Don't shake your butt at me," says the leader of the free world. Girl, a young lady who has taken up with Boy, laments, "My father turned into a pop-sickle. That is: A pop, whose arms had grown into sickles." When Boy wonders why dozens of human fingers have suddenly rained down on them, Girl replies, "They're from the global arms trade." Speaking of her mother, Girl says, "While we were gestating, she would sneak us fish sticks and baked goods. She'd slide them up the long corridor of her vagina and we'd munch on them and play cards in her womb." The President tearfully confesses on national television that his wife has merged with her bed and is now "a wifebed." And let's not forget the speech in which Grotilde praises Michail's nose hairs in facilitating cunnilingus: "And the mucus gives it all a nice wet layer," she adds. "Your mucus has chunky lumps that add to the pleasure."

Such is the state of satire in 2018. Taking on two of the biggest targets around -- the hypocrisies of American foreign policy and our collective inability to face the fact of climate change -- playwright Kate Tarker settles for grade-school foolery focused mostly on supposedly transgressive gags about emissions from various bodily orifices. The result is mockery without bite, a screeching cartoon based on the proposition that constantly referring to genitalia somehow constitutes a mordant comment on the state of the world.

Tarker is a new face, but it's hard to imagine what possessed the perfectly fine director Lileana Blain-Cruz to sign up for this misbegotten project. She has seemingly urged the company to perform at a sustained level of screeching. Sadly, this is especially so of Deirdre O'Connell's Grotilde: One of New York's finest actresses is made to sit with her legs spread, howling lines that consist largely of witless insults, and generally behaving like no human being ever; in nearly thirty-three years, this is the first terrible performance I've seen her give. Not much better are Juan Carlos Hernández and Ben Horner, mugging ferociously as Michail and the President, respectively. Providing some relief are Matthew Jeffers and Monique St. Cyr, who manage to underplay a bit as Boy and Girl. In the latter role, St. Cyr gets the odd good line; for example, she wonders, "If I joined the army do you think I could move to a populated world again?"

Matt Saunders' two-level set, with its pastel blue and yellow walls and the play's name spelled out in pennants, looks rather like a kindergarten classroom, which, under the circumstances, seems appropriate. It is loaded with doors that disgorge characters and set pieces, allowing the action to move swiftly -- a very good thing. Yi Zhao produces some starkly theatrical sidelight looks, although I could have done without the saturated pink washes on the faces of the actors in the final scene. Oana Botez's costumes -- including that crab outfit, and, for Grotilde, a flowing purple muumuu and white wedding ensemble complete with red devil horns -- are remarkably inventive. Chad Raines' sound design includes some highly percussive music as well as explosions, bits of Strauss' The Blue Danube, and disco music.

Does anyone involved with this production seriously think it offers any meaningful comment on the state of the world? Or was it staged simply for a hoot, the sheer thrill of getting away with as many smirky off-topic jokes as possible? I don't love every production offered by Soho Rep, but until this, even the weakest of them has daringly challenged the theatrical status quo, presenting a strongly articulated point of view about the way we live now. And now this. I would strongly suggest that it's time for the staff of this fine company to step back and take a breath. -- David Barbour

(29 October 2018)

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