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Thunderballs: A James Bond Boylesque (2015)

The Spies of Life

When I interviewed Jeremy Eden and Kaitlin Fleharty about their new Gorilla Tango Burlesque show, Thunderballs: A James Bond Boylesque, Eden assured me that his script was not only unprecedented in its meta hilarity, but also sidestepped the inevitable Austin Powers comparisons. He spoke sincerely, but I didn't quite believe him (I'm a critic, after all). Silly, skeptical me: forgetting never to doubt the brain-tickling might of GTB.

I've written exhaustively about Gorilla Tango's brand of bawdy entertainment for almost two years. Thunderballs is more of the same, meaning it's a raucous, professional comedy show first, and a stripping spectacle second. Things are a bit different this time out, as the cast is predominantly male. Writer/director Eden and choreographer Fleharty build on this fresh, new direction, and take things a step beyond the company's satirical high-water mark. They deliver an insightful dissection of the 50-year Bond franchise's big tropes and bigger personalities, beginning with the cold open. Instead of the standard admonishment against cell phones, chatting, and grabbing the performers, Thunderballs kicks off with a lineup of seven bickering Bonds that will change the way you think of George Lazenby and Roger Moore.

The Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale provides Thunderballs' skeleton: to stop gold-obsessed international terrorist Le Blofinger (Andy Strips), super-spy James Bond (Tallulah Twist) must infiltrate a high-stakes card game* and befriend twitchy CIA agent Felix Leiter (J.J. Pop, doing a caffeinated, spot-on impression of Geoffrey Wright). There are henchmen, too, of course, and a vaguely European femme fatale--not to mention a groin-splitting death laser that has to be seen to be believed. But I don't want to talk about any of that.

Bottom line: Go see Thunderballs.

What I do want to talk about is that I'm not sure if the show is sexy or not. As a straight male, I can't judge how it works as eroticism (or if that's even the point). I'll admit to being turned on by female-driven GTB productions like Boobs on Endor and Game of Thongs. But my enjoyment was never about pure titillation; I had fun watching the actors have fun. Because Thunderballs' performers didn't register at all with my baser instincts, I gained a new appreciation for the brilliant comedy, acting, and choreography on stage. I can imagine some ultra-macho dudes turning up their noses at a mostly-male, semi-nude revue--but it really is their loss.

I can't imagine anyone turning down the chance to see Bryan Schmiderer do his thing on stage. Yes, I'm using the actor's real name, and I hope that's okay. I first saw him as a supporting player in Gorilla Tango's (non-burlesque) Once Upon a Rom-Com: The Bill Pullman Story, and loved his spirit. In Thunderballs, he blasts the black-box stage with energy, playing both an aggressively lovelorn Ms. Moneypenny and Bond's ditzy, last-minute love interest, Pussy Ryder. He's flamboyant, fearless, and funny.

He's also a crucial part of the show's highlight--a tense rooftop climax in which Ryder and Bond square off against Le Blofinger. Eden, Fleharty and their cast cap off their zany farce by bringing the action into the audience. In an instant, the GTB's intimate black box space becomes a dizzying high-rise and I got so swept up in the real 3D experience that I hoped Andy Strips wouldn't actually fall to his death (ridiculous, I know, but that's the power of great theatre).

It's perhaps unfair to single out one performer or one set piece in praising Thunderballs (especially without even mentioning the music, culled exclusively from every Bond theme). Everyone did a stellar job in realizing this farce, and I could talk for an hour about what worked and why. But where's the fun in that? Like James Bond him/herself, the joy is in the adventure--in discovering things you, as an audience member might never have known were possible. As we enter Blockbuster Season, you'll have plenty of big movies choose from, most of which feature outrageously outfitted men knocking the hell out of each other while saving/destroying the world. But the real excitement's is live and alive in Bucktown. You know its name.

Thunderballs: A James Bond Boylesque plays Saturday nights at 10:30pm CST at GTT's Bucktown venue in Chicago, IL. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.

*I won't spoil which card game, 'cause it's the catalyst for some ridiculously sustained laughs.

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