In November 2016, something big happened, and everybody who did plays started tearing their hair out over which plays to do. I watched as a lot of artistic directors leapt to program Julius Caesar, which seemed to me like a relatively superficial, not to mention imperfectly analogous, response. Meanwhile, among the folks who really live for this stuff, I heard a lot of internet flutterings: Why isn’t anyone doing Arturo Ui? What about Ubu Roi? It was easy to see why the satirical big guns were coming out, why these plays about bloated, buffoonish bullies might start trending again, but something still felt off to me. I couldn’t help thinking: It’s too late.
Now, two years down the road, Brecht’s satire of Hitler’s rise is indeed gearing up for previews at Classic Stage Company, and at Soho Rep, something in the tradition of Alfred Jarry’s slangy, scatalogical power farce is going down. It’s called Thunderbodies, and it’s a decadent pageant of winking wordplay and distended grotesquerie. Playwright Kate Tarker and director Lileana Blain-Cruz are holding a funhouse mirror up to nature — nature in this case being American aggression and avarice — but to what end? Though Thunderbodies is bursting at the seams with ugly vitality, its parade of rapacious cartoons feels like little more than a pair of middle fingers thrust into the air, a nihilistically gleeful chorus of, “Yippee, we’re all fucked!” Granted, this feeling of thinness-despite-loudness isn’t all down to Tarker’s text. Underneath all the splattery absurdity, the play is interested in the loss of innocence, in the way even pure souls get corrupted and co-opted — but Blain-Cruz’s production fails to highlight this key concern within the hubbub. Instead it focuses on the play’s surface, on confetti and strobe lights and splashy commedia-esque performances, leaving the potential for real danger and real pathos untapped.
“War turns human reality into a bizarre carnival that does not seem part of our experience,” writes the journalist Chris Hedges in a passage that Tarker appends to her script as one of her play’s two epigraphs. The other comes from Mikhail Bakhtin’s discourse on the carnivalesque and deals with the the idea of “the grotesque body,” a kind of ravenous, hedonistic, absurdly outsize expression of humanity. Or, in Tarker’s language, a thunderbody. Her play — which takes place in the supposed peacetime following a long war waged by the U.S. in some unnamed and entirely vague foreign country — presents both American citizens and America itself as this kind of all-devouring, all-annihilating grotesque: creatures that, to paraphrase Bakhtin, have outgrown themselves and transgressed their own limits. Imperialists abroad and rampant consumers at home.
Nodding to Bakhtin, there’s General Michail Itterod (Juan Carlos Hernández), a cowardly high commander with a coat covered in medals and a dubious dependence on crutches. There’s the woman he’s loved “since he was in the womb”: Grotilde (Deirdre O’Connell), an operatic, pink-clawed diva-devil who’s just “completed her life’s work of losing the last ten pounds,” for a grand total of 610. Despite her epic weight loss, Grotilde remains a gargantuan force, a woman “of great immensity.” Such plot as the play has centers around her union with Michail — she demands an extravagant divorce before they can get married, because all modern marriages end in divorce, so why not go into the enterprise “ass first” — and around her son, a stubborn, naïve young soldier known simply as the Boy (Matthew Jeffers). Though “it’s spring in America” and “the war is over,” the Boy refuses to return from his tour of duty in that unnamed foreign country — much to the chagrin of the President (Ben Horner), who flashes a Colgate smile and, speaking through a drone, orders his last rogue troop to come home. “We are done with that country,” the President declares, as if he’s sending back an overcooked steak at a fancy restaurant. “That country is a whore. That country is an intern. That country is a mistake, and we don’t make mistakes. We are done … The enemy is just a widow. The enemy is just an orphan. The enemy is just a girl. Would you hit a girl?”
The Boy has ample time to make up his mind about that: A girl — or rather, the Girl (Monique St. Cyr) — soon crosses his path. She’s a survivor, one of “the enemy,” a bright-eyed innocent who retains a fascination with the American mystique despite the fact that “everyone [she knows] is dead,” presumably at American hands. “Grotesque!” she squeaks cheerfully, picking up on the word the Boy has used to mean “cool,” but he quickly turns on her: “Don’t use my country’s slang. Spit that out.”
If Thunderbodies is a Pandora’s box of magnified deformities in the national character, the Girl is the tiny, fragile hope nestled in amongst the monsters. She’s a crucial character and a tricky one, and here it feels as if no one has quite pinned her down. St. Cyr plays the Girl with such unblinking, bubbly naivete that she often seems like simply another willing caricature in the clown show rather than an ambiguous outsider who becomes a forced participant. Tarker herself seems to lump the Girl in with the American grotesques by giving her a song about her “Thunderboobs”: Mikhail psychs himself up with a war-chant about his “thunderbelly,” the Boy has a “thunderbutt,” and Grotilde treats us to a bellowing, slinking burlesque number about her “thunder vagina.” Near the play’s end, the whole company gyrates to a party anthem, singing “We are all bodies / Thunderbodies / …Oh odious, thunderous / bodies / we all have / them.” Perhaps the play means to show us a foreboding trajectory — the Girl’s ultimate corruption by and absorption in a cancerous colonizing culture—but it doesn’t differentiate her spirit enough early on for that sense of traumatic assimilation to land.
By the end, Blain-Cruz has also sidelined the Girl completely, focusing us so thoroughly on the stage-swallowing Grotilde that we lose track of the only character to offer the play anything resembling a conscience. Like much that Blain-Cruz does with Thunderbodies, the centering of Grotilde is an understandable if somewhat superficial choice. The character is a gaping maw —“I am hungry,” she grumbles constantly — and, given the chance, she’ll gobble up everything around her. More than any other actor (like, exponentially more), O’Connell gets that Bakhtinian notion of the transgressive, over-spilling body. She’s giving a fearless, fearsome, absolutely unleashed performance, snuffling and growling, shrieking and quivering, lounging in her Hawaiian-print La-Z-Boy with her legs spread, her beady eyes and hot pink talons searching for her next meal. It’s exciting to see a female character get to embody unapologetic self-aggrandizement and insatiable appetite. Next to Grotilde, Mikhail looks like exactly what she calls him — “a cotton swab, covered in ear guck, a flimsy probe tool”— and even the President seems knock-kneed and aimless underneath his virile, patriotic bluster.
Grotilde and the Girl exist at opposite ends of a spectrum, and Thunderbodies needs both poles in order to feel like it has anything going on besides a blingy, ultimately flat celebration-slash-condemnation of the “normible” state of things (that’s “both terrible and normal all at once” — one of the many portmanteaus coined by the play’s characters, who treat language “like crap in a giant fishtank [where] the good stuff floats”). But Blain-Cruz fails to find the sincerity and the emotional risk of the Girl’s scenes with the Boy — they just read as cutesy and pugnacious respectively—and at every other opportunity, she goes after the loud, the shiny, the schlocky, the shocking, an approach that eventually starts to feel less edgy than desperate. She’s not aided by the shallowness of Matt Saunders’ neon yellow and teal set, which orients the playing area longways down Soho Rep’s skinny space, with the audience jammed right up against the manic action. Satire requires a little distance, some space for the ideas and the jokes to ping back and forth, but here the actors are practically in our laps. Which means that — in attempting to be as big as possible despite the fact that we’re right there — their good-faith efforts often feel false and strained. Horner manages to keep a handle on the crazy-eyed President (like O’Connell, he’s got a more solid sense of his clown), but Jeffers mostly plays one note with the surly, self-interested Boy, and Hernández, despite huffing and puffing and bravely running around dressed like a disemboweled crab, feels off his center. The play’s language is an intentional word salad — a messy blend of cliché, ad-speak, and remixed verbal detritus — and Blain-Cruz hasn’t helped Hernández get below its surface.
There’s always something to look at in Thunderbodies, but there’s not always something to think about. The President flies a real remote-controlled mini-drone with a tiny American flag glued to its top. Grenades made of camo-colored plastic Easter eggs full of white powder come flying out of the set, along with a rain of plastic severed fingers (“They’re from the global arms trade,” says the Girl — the play loves a cringey ba-dum-ching!). Lighting designer Yi Zhao gives us brain-frying strobes to go along with Chad Raines’s super-amped, video-game-esque sound design, which throbs and blurps with as much distortion as the play’s characters. Grotilde eventually mounts a laden banquet table, decked out in a frilly white train and brandishing a chicken leg in celebration of her great divorce. The world, we hear, “has fallen off its axis” — the “weather economy” has been crashing and wacky, menacing animal hybrids are roaming the land, from buffalowings (buffalo that have, somehow, mated with butterflies) to whamon (whales that have mated with salmon). The play is like a series of espresso shots that somehow fails to wake you up — because yes, we know, things feel pretty freakin’ dire right now. And?
Satire is itself a chimera. You go in thinking it’s a lion, ready to rip the throat out of human wickedness and folly, but often by the time you get through it, it’s become a snake, somehow slipping away from you back into the weeds, venomous maybe but (being only the tail end) lacking in actual bite. Even the most famous political satirists acknowledged their form’s weird solipsism, its tendency to become an echo chamber. Jonathan Swift called it “a glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” and Tom Lehrer declared it obsolete after Henry Kissinger had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Well, we’re way past Kissinger, and simply as an act of cackling, shit-and-glitter-slinging catharsis, Thunderbodies feels hollow. If the play is to find its power, it will need to get a little more rigorous in the search for its own heart.
Thunderbodies is at Soho Rep through November 18.