Torso Theatre

Medieval and early Renaissance paintings depicting Christ being mocked by an unsympathetic crowd show his revilers making grotesque faces at him, sticking out their tongues and crossing their eyes like schoolboys. A popular soldier’s song during World War II speculated derisively about the reproductive equipment of the Nazi leaders, and a slogan of the antiwar protesters of the 1960s was “Nixon, pull out–like your father should have.” Then there was the flap over a student’s caricature of the late Harold Washington clad in women’s underwear. In a free society anybody may draw a mustache on anybody’s picture. And the primitive nature of the expression does not necessarily invalidate the criticism implied.

Last summer Torso Theatre did a bawdy little comedy about three bored west-coasters trying to perk up their sex lives, but critics were quick –almost too quick–to dismiss it as just another bedroom farce. So Torso decided to get more elementary. Instead of the relatively mature pleasures of sex, Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack revels in an earlier obsession–bodily secretions. Under our present laws it is apparently permissible to depict blood, vomit, urine, spittle, and breast milk, along with a man being microwaved into what appears to be mostaccioli, a woman being artificially inseminated with a kitchen baster, and several hapless victims having their adrenal glands forcibly removed with a cocktail fork. But no sex, that motif upon which Torso has built its dramatic reputation. The only nudity in this latest offering consists of one artificial penis and three flashes of bare breasts. When, after making love, a male character attempts to rise from the couch, he is given elaborately contrived instructions on how to put on his underwear onstage without exposing his genitalia. “Now that’s realism!” his partner declares. “That’s not the way Steppenwolf would have done it!” he grumbles.

Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack is more than a two-hour bathroom joke, however. It is set in a future (“sooner than you think,” warns the program) where the temperature has stood at more than 120 degrees for five years but the greenhouse effect is never mentioned. Where abortion has been declared illegal, resulting in a surplus of third-world babies, who are synthesized into various foodstuffs under such names as “Kentucky Fried Chicano” (it gets worse). Where the only women permitted to live in the U.S. are those conforming to an idealized cheerleader persona, that icon having been established by the revolutionary government of white male republicans who deposed the female president and overturned her ban on red meat and organized sports and restored “traditional values.” Where intercorporeal sex has been outlawed in favor of “sim-sex,” an exercise in joint masturbation during which neither partner touches anything but inanimate objects (the most arousing being replicas of natural foods). And where a plentiful supply of drugs keeps everyone serene and compliant–until two infinitesimal particles of the environment (conveniently shaped like human beings) arrive to bring enlightenment. Chaos and carnage accompany this radical change of consciousness, and few survivors are left. The final tableau reflects an acidly cynical indictment of American society.

Along the way Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack takes swipes at the white-collar drug culture, the E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom doctrines (in the form of “intellectual terrorists” who give pop quizzes and promptly execute those who flunk), AIDS hysteria, homophobia, the Karen Finley school of performance art, X-rated videos, television newscasters, advertising, and, of course, the NEA (a character suddenly discovers that an atomic-structure diagram he has been drawing resembles a penis–“There goes our grant!”). There are also sly theatrical in-jokes (the extraterrestrials name one another “Estrogen” and “Glad I’m Here” and immediately launch into a snippet of Waiting for Godot), ancient vaudeville wheezes (“Call me a taxicab”), and topical references (“Milli Vanilli University”).

Performing this sort of material is more a matter of athletics than art, and Torso’s cast scurry through their paces, uttering lines such as “I’ll teach you how to piss in iambic pentameter and fist-fuck a moonbeam” with a poker-faced concentration that would do Mel Brooks proud. In the pivotal role of Dan Citizen, Bruce Terris looks just enough like Jimmy Stewart to make plausible, as well as funny, his domination by his wife–played in the best Stephen King manner by Jamie Mayhew–and her demented gynecologist/druggist, played by Richard Blades (who also does a cheesecake turn as a cross-dressing weather reporter). Rounding out the cast are Teri L. Clark as Natasha the porno queen; Debbie Coon as Miss Agony, a woman on the verge of liberation; and Joe Feliciano as Grody, the psychopath reformed by love and hormones. Billy Bermingham, who also wrote and directed the play, is one of the infinitesimal particles. Special mention also goes to Shawn Turung for his special effects.

Torso Theatre’s slam-bang satire is not for everyone, transcending as it does all conventional distinctions between good and bad taste. But at a time when so many artists claiming to be outrageous and daring still shrink from anything approaching extreme, Torso Theatre at least has the courage to walk as it talks. As a phenomenon of the late 80s and early 90s, this theater is worthy of note–if for no other reason than if you don’t see it with your own eyes, you probably won’t believe it when the historians document it years hence.