Many theater companies say that making "provocative" art is part of their mission. The Thrillpeddlers is one such company – depending on what you mean by "provocative."
Founded in 1991, the Thrillpeddlers pay homage to two gratuitously sexy theater companies of yore: Theatre du Grand Guignol, the turn-of-the-century Parisian company specializing in noir thrillers and sex farces, and the Cockettes, the legendary drag group of the '60s and '70s that performed lurid musical revues in North Beach. The company's latest show, Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, is of the second type, and it's grotesque enough to make even the most seasoned Thrillpurchasers feel like country farm girls.
There's such a girl (Eric Tyson Wertz) in the show; we won't spoil how she milks the cow (Nancy French). But no salacious moment lasts long in this 27-person, 23-song revel in theatrical anarchy, which means you can never be sure that the vividly rendered fellatio isn't real. One scene might feature the Marx Brothers (Jim Jeske, Carlos Barrera), Salvador "Deli" (Jim Toczyl), and Siamese twins (Birdie-Bob Watt, Dalton Goulette); another, a parody of Cecil B. DeMille (Gerri Lawlor), Tarzan (also Wertz), and Brünnhilde (ZsaZsa Lufthansa). The plot, of course, is gobbledygook. But there are stories told just in the garish costumes of designer Alice Cunt. The planet Mars blooms from one character's belly; another character has eyelashes so long you must lean back in your chair.
Tinsel Tarts, under the direction of Russell Blackwood (who also steals the scene as prima donna Madge the Magnificent), is not the Thrillpeddlers' most polished work. On opening night, some performers lost pace searching for lines. And some songs (many by Scrumbly Koldewyn, musical director and original Cockette), particularly the serious ballads, seem to have made it into the show only in order to give more performers solos. Others, however, are ingenious marriages of form and content, as when the lyric "When petals fall in Petaluma" is sung by two men reaching for falser and falser falsetto.
A neighborhood over, Crowded Fire Theater is also titillating its audiences with gory and erotic fare, but, unlike the Thrillpeddlers' work, it serves a discernible purpose.
Thomas Bradshaw's The Bereaved begins with a familiar portrait of an ambitious middle-class, middle-aged couple, Carol and Michael (Michele Leavy and Lawrence Radecker), in a discussion about who takes out the garbage more often. But this banality is a red herring. Seconds later, the spat escalates into flesh-puckering screeching, then lulls just as inexplicably. Strangest of all is the forger of peace: a line of cocaine.
Carol and Michael perceive themselves as barely, desperately holding onto their aspirational lifestyle (which they later estimate requires over $400,000 of annual income). Everything that keeps them from their goal, be it Michael's meager salary as an adjunct professor or their son Teddy's (Joshua Schell) failure to conceal evidence of his masturbation, is fair game for an efficiency evaluation.
As a barrage of catastrophes befalls family members, they show their bereavement not with emotion but with a business development plan. Source of income, parent, spouse: All become replaceable parts to further the two greatest goods: paying the mortgage and Teddy's private high school tuition. But family members also show their grief by dissolving their (few) social and moral constraints on behavior and indulging in woefully politically incorrect fantasies, both sexual and racial. (In these moments, proceedings on this stage and Thrillpeddlers' are practically interchangeable.) If not every performer in director Marissa Wolf's ensemble is cartoonish enough to maximize the script's humor, the storytelling is so economical that a few dud scenes don't do much damage.
All that had previously kept these characters decent, Bradshaw suggests, was the miracle that everything had always gone all right, coupled with regular doses of cocaine to hush the anxiety and Band-Aid over fissures of rage. In recent years, many of Crowded Fire's productions have been asking these questions, often in a satirical way, often with the wrench of identity politics thrown into the machine: What lets us be decent, and what happens when that thing is taken away? Crowded Fire's refreshing answer, again and again, has been that you're not going to see the play that you thought you were watching.