Tarker's Thunderbodies surreally creates laughs

What happens when classic absurdity meets the modern conceptions of war? The answer, for playwright Kate Tarker, is Thunderbodies, the latest production from the boundary-pushing Soho Rep.

Directed with zeal by Lileana Blain-Cruz, this inferno of a comedy takes the extremes and pushes them in newer — though not always successful — directions. Tarker clearly carries on the tradition of playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett and Alfred Jarry, but has a very distinctive voice and a rich talent for world-building.

The setting is America, though how close it is to reality remains both clouded in doubt and trapped in a veil of lucidity.

First and foremost, the production’s dedication to silly stagecraft is commendable, with everything from doors that appear out of nowhere to miniature tanks to fully operated drones being parts of the design.

Matt Saunders’ quadruple-pastel set is a sensory assault that makes even looking straight something of an exhausting task. It becomes a nice challenge to see if one can predict from which nook or cranny the cast may emerge, and there are plenty of nooks and crannies. Yi Zhao’s gorgeous light design adds dimensions to what is already a multi-dimensional production.

Blain-Cruz’s direction keeps the ship moving steady. The main question is, frankly, what kind of ship this is. It would be reductive to call Tarker’s play a satire in the traditional means because it exists in its own orbit. It is hard to categorize what in the world Thunderbodies is, though a few things are discernable. It is funny, no doubt about it. The show takes absurd, surreal extremes in ways few writers are willing to do nowadays, in what feels like the ultimate act of theatrical subversion. It is, in many ways, a grade-A nuclear weapon of the masses in all its grotesque glory.

Speaking of grotesque, the cast meets that requirement with top marks all around. Deirdre O’Connell is a scene-stealer, chewing every bit of stage time she has as Grotilde, who has accomplished her life’s goal of losing those last 10 pounds. Grotilde oddly reminds of a stereotypical woman waiting for her man to return from the war, except Grotilde is much more voraciously open about her own sexual prowess and desire. She loves General Michail — played by Juan Carlos Hernández — who is as pathetic as can possibly be for a war hero, as seen when he comes on stage in his “crab cake” disguise.

A sense of fable-telling worms its way into this production as the last soldier, played by Matthew Jeffers, refuses to come from the war, seeing his life and his existence as purposeless without perpetual conflict. It is in this vague state abroad that he meets the Girl, played with an anatomical whimsy by Monique St. Cyr.

Their lives become inextricably linked and forever changed as the President, portrayed by Ben Horner, hunts them down. Perhaps it is too early to categorize Thunderbodies, but it is early enough for everyone to enjoy and gasp at the horror of it all.