A Wild, Wild West of Their Own
Pig Iron Theatre Company heads wherever its rowdy collective spirit leads
By Krista Apple
Teddy's transceiver is going berserk.
There's been a recent uptick in chatter on his alien-scouting radio device, and Teddy's on edge. Meanwhile, in the corner of the diner, an Elvis impersonator is singing karaoke duets with his new Russian bride while cowboys munch on apple pie. On the mesa out yonder, Priscilla's on a vision quest to cure her dystopic myopia; an erstwhile lover won't follow his restraining order; and three cycling Italians just took off their clothes. The FBI may or may not be in town. And don't look now, but a space alien just ate somebody's brain.
Equal parts cosmic meditation and raucous live-action cartoon, Pig Iron Theatre Company's Welcome to Yuba City goes whole hog in its celebration of the mythic American West. The eccentric inhabitants of the fictional one-horse town embody our isolation and thirst for adventure; they are achingly human and ridiculously sincere.
Wildly different as they are, Pig Iron's latest theatrical exploits—Yuba City (which debuted at Philadelphia's Live Arts Festival in September) and the Obie-winning Chekhov Lizardbrain (which returned to New York City last month at the Under the Radar festival)—highlight the company's transformative and multi-faceted spirit. Lizardbrain is a psychological étude inspired by brain theory; Yuba City is a slapstick farce about truck stops and cowboys. But both manifest Pig Iron's propensity for a kind of decadent transcendence, an ability to make us celebrate even the darkest pieces of ourselves—to "put the human condition on stage," as Lizardbrain proposes, "and make it dance."
Internationally renowned for its hybrid style (it's a self-branded "dance-clown-theatre ensemble," much to the chagrin of anti-arts-funding politicians like John McCain and Tom Coburn), the Philadelphia-based company has devised 24 original productions and toured to 11 countries since its founders—co-artistic directors Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Dito van Reigersberg and Dan Rothenberg—met at Swarthmore College 20 years ago.
"At Swarthmore," Bauriedel reflects, "we were learning about the Open Theater, Gardzienice and Théâtre du Soleil. So for us it was normal that you get together and make plays...and you don't start with a script. You start with a group of people and you follow what's hot."
For Paul MacLean, the company's resident director, lizard brains got very hot about five years ago—the lizard brain inside us all, that is. Chekhov Lizardbrain was inspired by the research of Temple Grandin (who famously proposed that the workings of animals' brains resemble that of her own autistic mind) and Paul McLean's "triune brain" theory, which posits that the human brain is composed of three evolutionary layers: the "reptilian brain" of the brain stem and cerebellum; the "mammalian" layer; and the more recently evolved "human brain" of the neocortex.
It's also loosely based on the plays of Anton Chekhov—which Rothenberg now considers one big experiment in brain states. "Temple Grandin explains that animals are not capable of thinking about the past or future. They only comprehend the right now. Compare that to a Chekhov play, where everyone's wishing for the past or dreaming about the future, except for maybe one person. They don't even notice that everybody's literally packing up the house around them until the last possible moment, when suddenly the present comes crashing down around them."
Rothenberg and the ensemble asked themselves what it meant for a character to be driven not by the daily human brain but by a deeper set of impulses—the "lizard" brain, for example, where survival is the primary impulse, communication is possible but largely unnecessary, and any sudden movement catalyzes a physical response. Thus the soberly sublime host of their eventual brain circus was born. Imagine an iguana with opposable thumbs, a top hat and a taste for Russian theatre, and you've got the idea. Chekhov Lizardbrain. Ta-daaa.
Exhibiting a showman's charm and a firm grasp on Chekhov's "five rules of theatre," Chekhov Lizardbrain is the suave alter ego to Dmitri, an extremely autistic and socially challenged botanist from Portland, Ore. In a feat of Jekyll-and-Hyde proportions, both characters are portrayed by Pig Iron ensemble member James Sugg. The performance capitalizes on Sugg's natural precision and fluidity as he changes on a dime between Dmitri's jagged psychology and Chekhov Lizardbrain's somber, reptilian flair. The role earned Sugg an Obie award in 2009.
Welcome to the inside of Dmitri's head, Chekhov Lizardbrain informs us. Dmitri has just bought a house from three brothers, but now the brothers are gone, the house is cold and Dmitri's loneliness is consuming him. His memories of meeting the brothers—full of social cues and codes he cannot comprehend—haunt him. He conjures Chekhov Lizardbrain to tend to the memories, to fix and reinterpret them in a way that he can understand. But the real memories keep crashing the party, and Dmitri can't keep up.
"There is the idea of a thing," Chekhov Lizardbrain explains, "and there is the thing itself." So too with Dmitri's memories. There is an idea of what happened, which Dmitri conjures for himself: an awkwardly played but comforting Chekhovian melodrama, in which Dmitri is arguably the hero. And there is the actuality of it all, where we witness Dmitri at his pitiable worst: awkwardly struggling to comprehend others' intentions and possessed with aching lack of social grace.
It's a metaphor for our shared loneliness," says Rothenberg. "I mean, I don't understand peoples' intentions! I've been spending all my life trying to understand other peoples' intentions. I think everybody knows what that is."
CHEKHOV LIZARBRAIN PREMIERED IN PHILADELPHIA IN 2007. THERE WERE SIGNIFICANT CHANGES before the 2008 New York run—in fact, each of Pig Iron's projects is organic and ever-changing, due in part to a collective disinterest in extant plays. "Scripts are like a roadmap," Rothenberg reasons. "You can't just wave a roadmap in the air and say, 'We went somewhere.' They might give you a shape of something, but not the thing itself. Theatre is not a reproducible product."
Pig Iron has included non-ensemble playwrights in its collaborative process since 2001's Shut Eye. Robert Quillen Camp and Deborah Stein (who have both collaborated on previous Pig Iron projects as well) provided the text for Chekhov Lizardbrain and Yuba City, respectively. But Pig Iron's modus operandi requires playwriting to happen concurrently with—not prior to—the actors' impulses. "Shakespeare and Chekhov wrote for specific actors," Rothenberg observes. "We do, too."
The company regards Chekhov Lizardbrain as the culmination of a provoking (if unintentional) minimalist phase, where the rowdy cabarets and clown noses of their early work gave way to more somber meditations. Pay Up (2006) was an interactive experiment in the anxieties of spending, in which audience members were given an allowance at the door and had to choose which of a myriad of experiences to pay for. Isabella (2007) was a radical re-imagining of Measure for Measure set in a morgue and played by naked reanimated corpses, challenging Shakespeare's occasional frivolity with sex and lust in the face of death. And Love Unpunished (2006) precisely and thoughtfully orchestrated themes of panic, 9/11 and the thin line between living and dying.
Ready to return to their roots in commedia and clowning (most of Pig Iron's members have trained independently at L'école Jacques Lecoq), last year the company sought a project that would embrace the transcendent joy of physical transformation. It was decided that Bauriedel would helm the production, making it the first Pig Iron project not directed by Rothenberg since Bauriedel directed The Tragedy of Joan of Arc (which graced the cover of this magazine in 2000, two seasons after its premiere). Bauriedel, who grew up on the West Coast, immediately found himself musing on the Great American West: the myths, the dreams and the ridiculous roadside attractions it inspires.
Welcome, then, to Yuba City: that special place "where the song is so sad it is funny, the character so crazy she is wise, the lie so preposterous it is true." In the diner, where much of the action is set, the locals are quick to tell tall tales and offer well-intentioned, if misguided, desert wisdom. "Life out here is like a bar of soap," one cowgirl tells us with a thick Texan drawl. "It just keeps slipping from your grasp." Meanwhile the tourists—from Italy, Russia and beyond—marvel at the Fords and cacti.
The show's broad style shows off the ensemble's physical prowess and their penchant for charming camp, via a carousel of entrances, exits, costume changes, lazzi, extended fight sequences and big musical dance breaks. In all, seven cast members portray more than thirty characters in the span of two hours. Thanks to the space afforded by Mimi Lien's sprawling set, they travel in and out of Yuba by car, truck, bicycle, skateboard, scooter and swinging rope. They disappear behind the counter and reappear from thin air. Cowboys gracefully mount diner seats like saddles, and FBI agents dance like Agnes de Mille.
"When we imagined the desert landscape I thought about the Joshua tree," Bauriedel recalls. "It's a species that struggles to survive. They grow completely on their own, and no two look at all alike. The characters of Yuba represent these trees, in a way. They're so different, one to the next. Maybe they have one tiny little leaf that they're able to produce. But that's enough. And they're wind-battered and wild like the desert."
Diner regular Priscilla is legally blind thanks to a wicked twister, and she's enlisted Eric—a philosophizing Native American with a taste for junk food—to help restore her sight. ("You are on the cusp of a great journey," Eric explains, slurping a Big Gulp soda. "Leave only footprints. Take only photographs.") Tom and Susan can't live without each other, despite Susan's restraining order; in a desperate plea for Susan's love, Tom stages his own diabetic death by overdosing on dinner mints. A gawking newcomer greets her death over and over again by bow and arrow, raccoon and poisoned apple pie. And Teddy's there through it all, repairing his transceiver with aluminum foil and a TV antenna, desperately trying to make extraterrestrial contact across the space-time continuum.
Stein's text muses on dust particles, atoms and other invisible mysteries. Original songs by Michael Friedman, a member of New York City's Civilians, capture a side of Yuba's cowboys that is earnestly naïve and full of dreams they (almost) know will never come true. Ultimately we're left with the overwhelming sense that the whole universe is both entirely heartfelt and a bit of a joke—a joke we're sometimes in on and sometimes not.
In many ways, the joyful spirit of Yuba City hearkens back to the ensemble's early years. But the intrepid ensemble is too busy to notice. It's plowing full speed ahead into a future full of firsts and unknowns. Plans are nearly complete for a Pig Iron training conservatory, projected to open its doors in the fall of 2011. Despite the company's typical evasion of the printed word, there is mention of publishing a collection of Pig Iron scripts. The ensemble's next project, a 2011 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, will be Pig Iron's first "traditional" staging of pre-scripted material (meaning the actors will perform the words as written by Shakespeare—though Bauriedel says they reserve the right to cut and rearrange a bit). Perhaps inspired by Yuba City's exuberant joy, Rothenberg says that Midsummer will usher in the company's next phase, and "let loose the purity of playfulness."
Back in the diner in Yuba, clad in a tin foil hat and clutching hopefully to his electromagnetic transceiver, Teddy reminds us that the future is a useful—if bewildering—place to be. "In communicating with the unknown," he whispers, "we will finally gain a true understanding of how to be good to each other. How to be human. Don't be scared. It's a revolution in emotion. It's a beautiful time to be alive."
Krista Apple is a Philadelphia-based actor and arts writer.blog comments powered by Disqus
View our comments policy