No Snoozing for the Avant-Garde

By Roger Babb

Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Shut Eye, a collaboration with Joseph Chaikin that premiered in September 2001, will play at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Aug. 1-26.

In the continually shifting worlds of the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Shut Eye, images of sleep and sleeplessness are artfully presented with a logic that deliberately confuses dreams with reality. A newly married couple, exhausted by overwork, unsuccessfully attempts to stay awake long enough to be intimate and attentive. The comic corporate world of “Pillow Tech International” seethes with the greed and ambition of a new-age Jacobean nightmare. A man lies in a coma, undisturbed by emergency procedures or anxious visitors. A charming-but-pathetic insomniac wanders through all of these scenes with slow desperation, searching for a mythic sleep clinic. Shut Eye displays this young collective’s skill in creating evocative physical images that resonate with both depth and humor.

Shut Eye is the result of a collaboration between Pig Iron and Joseph Chaikin, director of the legendary Open Theater and later the Winter Project, two groups that pioneered ensemble-created experimental works of theatre such as The Serpent, Terminal and Tourists and Refugees. Pig Iron founded their collective using the Open Theater as a model. Lecoq trained and movement oriented, the company has made a name for itself internationally and as one of Philadelphia’s premiere experimental theatre troupes.

One of Chaikin’s key concepts, derived from Viola Spolin, was that of transformation—an actor’s rapid metamorphosis from one state of being to another, for example, or the conversion of a scene or image into an entirely different psychic environment. The technique is commonplace now but is still useful in suggesting a reality that is discontinuous and unstable—like the world of sleep and sleeplessness. Pig Iron has embraced this aesthetic and choreographs remarkable transitions from one image to the next. In Shut Eye, much of the transformation is done with a hospital-room divider that is used to wipe away one world and reveal another. The screen, on casters, seems to glide and whirl around the stage of its own volition, depositing some actors and absorbing others. It takes on aspects of character and intention—at times sinister and often very funny—depending on the speed and dynamic with which the deft, unseen actors manipulate it.

What is most encouraging and hopeful about this production is the collaboration between a vibrant, company of young actors and one of this country’s veteran theatrical innovators. This piece is a prime example of 1960s avant-garde theatre practices and methodologies being refashioned by a new generation of experimentalists.

Roger Babb teaches acting and directing at Princeton University. He is the artistic director of Otrabanda Company.

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