And on the 7th day, they wrestled

Thunderbird Theatre Co. returns with yet another hilarious spoof

It’s no ordinary group of friends who could get together, write a comedy-rich play and rigorously stage it four times a week in their off hours. Or spend most of each summer, year after year, hamming it up in a 35-seat theater just for the fun of it.

These friends live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like everyone else there, they deal with day jobs, commutes and pink slips. Still, they devote many hours a week to creating some of the funniest moments you’ll ever see on stage. They’re the Thunderbird Theatre Company, and they’re coming to town this weekend. They’re looking to give thanks and laughter-induced bellyaches to Chico. After all, this is the community that brought them together in the first place.

It’s your typical fairy tale. Fresh from the embracing theatrical environment of the greater Chico area, six thespians and lovers of comedic expression move to San Francisco and then, largely by chance, run into each other at the corner store, bus stop, and other non-tourist attractions. Realizing they’d left their hearts about 175 miles north, they hatched a scheme to keep in touch with their collective funny bone.

I was thinking about their kind of humor while standing in line in Kathy Hicks and Bryce Allemann’s kitchen in San Francisco, waiting for a hotdog with the Thunderbird cast and crew. Stage humor seems effortless to an audience, though the truth is that considerable effort and talent are required to master the timing and content—and the physical expression of them. Some people have it, others don’t. If you want to be a success in comedic theater, you have to master the high- and lowbrowisms of humor or you can expect rotten fruit to be hurled your way.

A review I’d read in the Contra Costa Times for the Thunderbird’s newest play, Los 7 Magnificos, described it as “funnier than a bucket of rubber chicken.” Standing in line waiting for my plump and juicy wiener at the informal dinner party intended to rejuvenate the cast of the play between matinee and evening performances, I thought of previous Thunderbird performances and knew the chances of walking out wearing rancid fruit cocktail were slim to none. It’s a good thing I’d packed my lowbrow kit to go to SF, as it was the only thing I’d need to get through the evening.

I certainly wouldn’t need much in the way of drinking money, which is incredibly strange for SF. In conjunction with the play’s Mexican-wrestler theme and overall Chico dynamic, there were plenty of tequila shots and Pale Ales on sale at the theater for the screamingly cheap prices of $2 and $3, respectively. You can’t even get Budweiser for those kinds of prices in the city by the bay, and nothing makes an evening seem funnier than a shot of Cuervo. Between the dogs and the drinks, I was in fine shape for having fun.

Most theater companies these days try to take the whole thing too seriously, the goal not being to have fun but to be artistic. The Thunderbird Theatre Company stands apart by maintaining that silliness is not to be sacrificed just because they’re on stage. And they have developed an aesthetic of high silliness that is genuinely artistic.

The company was formed in 1997 by six ex-Chicoans who’d independently relocated to San Francisco. Their mission: to write original plays full of good humor to serve as an outlet for their creative energy. They don’t do it for the money, they don’t do it for the fame (well, fame is a relative term), they do it to stay sane. Whether or not that goal has been accomplished, they have stuck to their guns for four years now, spending a good chunk of each year writing and arranging for their productions.

Previous productions include the literary satire The Condensed Works of Frank Cullen, the Hollywood western spoof Lariats of Fire, and the goofy Scooby Doo-style mystery The Gloved Fist of Satan. The group also re-worked The Condensed Works of Frank Cullen for the 2000 SF Fringe Festival.

True to Thunderbird form, this year’s play has some repeated themes. While last year’s cult figure was Frank Zappa, this year they took on Jerry Garcia (that is, if a Lexus-owning East Indian named Sanjay—Zach Jordan—can be construed beyond a hippie hallucination to be Jerry). Also, there is a dance scene that would make Mel Brooks proud. Imagine a stage chock full of Quakers paying homage to the rakes they wield. Magnificos goes over the top in a really good way with commedia dell’arte-style fight scenes that smack of legendary wrestlers in a cartoon world.

Also true to form is the loose spoof of a classic—in this case Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Japanese “western” The Seven Samurai and its American spin-off, The Magnificent Seven. Magnificos tells of a group of hapless Santa Cruz hippies who are being attacked by Evil Quakers, who commandeer their pot harvest in the name of what’s moral and profitable. To fight back (an ironic notion—the hippies are otherwise helpless in the name of pacifism), they send Autumnal Equinox (Susan Gard) and Kevin (Donald Nut) off to find some laid-off luchadores (wrestlers) in a Tijuana bar.

El Moro (Kai Morrison), the leader of the Magnificos’ titular gang of seven masked wrestlers, is known for his inner agony. “How come I never get to be the one who dies?” cries the habitually depressed luchador when found by the questing hippies. Despite his depression, El Moro helps them find six additional luchadores in order to fill the requisite seven necessary to set about kicking Quaker butt back at the commune.

So it’s a little silly. OK, it’s a lot silly. But it’s fun. Kind of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers meets Monty Python.

Anyway, back to the story. The auditions for the parts of the six other luchadores goes eventfully, with a little maiming and a lot of drinking and peppered with dialog between El Santo (Jeff Kellner), the narrator of sorts, and El Bandito (Martin Chavira), the greatest luchador of all time and prime chorus. Found are The Great Tanaka (Richard Neveu), the funky El Pollo Loco (Steven LeMay, who also plays the Chongish hippie Doobie), Señor Roboto (Jason Harding), Chico and The Man (Jon Bailey), and Montezuma (Kyle Craig).

Montezuma goes all out to prove her mettle, as it is yet unknown she is carrying the burden of her father’s past on her shoulders, and she gives an amazingly impressive audition in the Tijuana bar El Gringo Muerte (props to Fight Captain Kai Morrison and Fight Director John Ficarra).

Chico is the lovelorn one, what with The Man commandeering his existence from the end of his right arm. You’ll laugh until you cry. And I can’t begin to describe Señor Roboto without feeling like I’m giving something away, so I’ll leave it at that.

Eventually assembled is the extremely motley crew, who trade their borrowed Lexus for a roomier bus, and the hippies. With luchadores in tow, they head back to Santa Cruz to claim what was theirs.

Meanwhile, the Evil Quakers are going to town with the stolen marijuana crop and raking the communal society to pieces. All have particularly sinister characters and crazier names. Seriously, try saying Jean Claude Gawd Damme (Jordan) out loud, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. El Batidor de Chico Molesto (Seanetta) scared the gee-whiz out of me, and not just because he was extra hopped up on cramp pills. His later incarnation, Sweet Pea van Gogh, is straight out of a David Lynch film, an evil little man with big feet and a stiff walk.

The freakiest of all is the icy-eyed Reverend (Ron Richardson). Few words could describe this egomaniacal zealot without causing a major case of heebie-jeebies. Not even an oatmeal bath would cure the itch caused by the rashness of this Rev.

Not surprisingly, there are some ex-dot-commers in this SF troupe, and the merchandising machine includes a CD single of the Quakers’ big show hit, “The Rake Dance Song,” as well as luchador action figures and T-shirts. In a good self-parody, they also take a sharp shot at folks with cell-phones.

Allemann gave me some literature regarding the Thunderbird Theatre Company’s annual pilgrimage to Chico that outranks anything I’ve seen distributed by the Chico Chamber of Commerce. These guys are gung-ho in their enthusiasm for our fair town, what with its park, charming downtown, choice ice cream and dive bars. Of course, they recommend their namesake, the Thunderbird Lodge, as best place to stay while here.

And they’re coming to town this weekend. You’ve been warned. There will be crazy Evil Quakers and many masked avengers hitting the streets of our lovely downtown for Labor Day weekend, so hide your Cuervo, keep an eye on your oatmeal, and viva la revoluciên!