Apocalypse Wow

Somewhere between the silly absurdity of Lewis Carroll and the hilarious existentialism of Samuel Beckett is Jason Nodler's cultish, youthful rock musical In the Under Thunderloo, running at Infernal Bridegroom Productions' swank new northside theater. Thunderloo gives us an apocalyptic world where everything is brown rock, dark caves and red mud. The last tree is no bigger than a twig. And the only other things growing in this bleak landscape are flaming pumpkins as deadly as they are beautiful. On the other hand, wonderfully whimsical characters appear. A singing dinosaur, a dancing milkman and a 16-year-old girl with Kool-Aid-pink hair, black lips and snow-white kneesocks journey to the center of the world to try to figure out "what happened to make the world the way it is."

Bouncing back and forth between the "dawn of time" and the apocalypse, Nodler's script opens on Scrap (Tamarie Cooper), Rock (Patrick Reynolds) and Chunky (Noel Bowers), three hunkering cave dwellers dressed in animal hides and carrying clubs. Talking like cartoon characters, they argue over dinner and make such profound observations as "It have been hard day," "Sun heat on face make red hot" and "Life no fair." The lights go black for a fast-forward to the end of time and the story's hero, schoolboy Jake Steak (Troy Schulze). He stands in an underground subway station reciting a monologue that sounds an awful lot like beat poetry on acid: "I hopped on a train behind a guy and a horse's head. He was neighing and bucking the train, it was rocking, the doors were a-locking and I started to cry." The failure of language, which seems to be one of Nodler's obsessions here, is made clear in the juxtaposition of scenes. For all our modern ability to fill our words with rhythm and rhyme, we can do nothing more profound than the caveman's simple "life no fair."

Soon Jake Steak, who's been skipping school, hooks up with Photochick (Anessa Ramsey), a teenage girl who busily records her memories with a Polaroid. The two innocents set off on an Oz-like quest to the surface, where they hope to meet the Woodman (Steven K. Barnett), who they believe will provide the answers to their burning adolescent questions about God, love and the meaning of life.

It's hard to know how seriously Nodler expects the audience to take these characters. There is something youthfully self-indulgent in their earnest fights. "God is what made us," says Jake, "and he's just like us, except that he makes instead of breaks."

On the other hand, the script is jammed with wildly irreverent and very funny moments. When Jake torches the last pond on earth, he says, "It's nobody's fucking pond now…Not even the swans. They went up like Q-tips." The last dinosaur is a gun-toting cop with a prehistoric chip on his shoulder. At the end of their journey for wisdom, Jake and Photochick get no advice more profound than to have a baby, for a baby "changes everything."

Thus this script -- Nodler wrote it in his early twenties at NYU playwriting school -- remains promising but rough. Much of what makes this production work is his direction and the energy of his wacky cast.

Ramsey's Photochick is a firecracker of bony, childlike exuberance. She floats about with plumes of pink hair sticking out every which way, wonderfully unpredictable on stage. Nodler brings out the best the tiny talented actor has to offer, so she commands the stage whenever she struts out in her schoolgirl skirt and black leather platform maryjanes.

Schulze's Jake is a kick of dark-eyed, ironic man-boy angst. Schulze finds nice tension in Jake's young soulful search for meaning, managing to show us how deep this character feels even as the actor is aware of the absurdity of Jake's quest.

One of the hysterical characters is Charlie Scott's Francis, a man who travels back to the cave dwellers in time to teach Scrap, the cavewoman, about English. All strange tics and goofy sounds, Scott can be funnier than most actors even when he doesn't say a word.

And of course there's the music. Anthony Barilla's rough-edged sound hammers out from his rangy band and fills Nodler's theater with so much energy that the audience can't sit still. Their heads and knees bounce to the beat of each new tune.

In the Under Thunderloo is not one of IBP's most successful productions, but by the end it burns up the stage with apocalyptic hellfire and damnation. This may be the end of the world, but it's a lot of wild fun to watch.

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Lee Williams