A Period of Animate Existence: Pig Iron

Espie is a queer mixed race Asian American director and producer

Maura is a white cis-woman who works as a director, producer, and dramaturg.

Espie

Shall we empty our pockets?

 

UntitledMaura

Yes! I know a couple of folks in the show, and I’m good friends with Pig Iron’s Associate Artistic Director Nell Bang-Jensen, who also cast the show. I also came into the show having already heard negative things about it. Also I am drinking a beer right now.

 

Espie

I knew a few folks in the show.  Additionally, I have a lot of conflicting personal feels about Pig Iron.  I had a frustrating experience with them as an intern when I first arrived in Philly but have also taken workshops with them that have really positively impacted my artistic practice.

 

Maura

I’m not sure how to start. Perhaps with who this play was for?

 

Espie

Because in a lot of ways the piece was asking “what is the meaning of LIFE?” and was so cosmic in scale, I wondered if this had the potential to reach across the aisle and engage Republicans.

 

Maura

That’s really interesting! I was thinking of it as rather about the progression of time and extinction and human meaninglessness, simultaneously with the idea of environmental stewardship. What did you decide regarding Republicans?

 

Espie

I feel like work that can cut to core questions about your happiness have the potential to reach anyone and I definitely experienced that. Notably, “Maybe I should quit my job and really focus on what makes me happy?” was really rattling my brainspace during Movement 2.

 

Maura

I agree with that. I loved Movements 1 and 2, because they felt like they truly honored the incomprehensibility of huge ideas (like extinction, or millions of years) for us as human beings. Both of those movements, and even Movement 3 to some degree, gave me space to reflect as an insignificant individual about the big things in my life, like happiness and how I use my time. I almost cried during Movement 2, for the sheer overwhelming expansive populated-ness of it. I do have to say though, Movement 3 gave me a giant headache.

 

Espie

I think got tired of the novelty of the halal cart pretty quickly.

 

Maura

I hear that, but when I thought more about the use of a food truck in that movement, I really liked it. It was about a very quotidien machine that multiplies throughout our cities in order to feed our physical, very human bodies. It embodied the point of the movement, which I thought was quite thought-provoking — that idea that human beings are the reproductive mechanisms for machines, like bees are to plants.

 

Espie

I really enjoy that interpretation, though because of the specific image of the halal cart, I kept reading it as a sensationalization of working class and immigrant narratives.

 

Maura

You’re so right that it did bring up some questions about machinery and the working class, that weren’t fully explored or acknowledged.

 

I’m not going to lie, I really want to talk about Movement 4.

 

Espie

YES.  While I appreciated that the narrative of Movement 4 was driven by women, I really wished that casting pushed away from them all being white and presented a multiracial family- especially coming on the heels of Movement 2’s inclusivity.  I thought that how Movement 4 periscope-d in and out between the very personal experience of the young girl and the strange other worldly experience with the volcano children and grandparent/tree/planet jawns was really effective.  

 

It’s so hard for me not to emote immediately with children on stage.  I felt myself giving in to letting my emotions be manipulated by their being adorable; so, when they started bringing up the pageant that was supposed to be going on or when I started to try to figure out if the people pushing the scenery were also supposed to be characters, I immediately forgave that some of the choices in that movement weren’t super clear.

 

Maura

Saying the choices weren’t clear feels like a great way to sum up certain directorial things about that movement. However, from a content perspective, I experienced it as a pretty didactic piece, that never felt genuine to the voices of the performers to me. It was also too long.

 

On the plus side, mad props to Nell for that casting job. I thought that the little girl was an incredibly compelling and lovely performer, and I had major feelings in that moment where Mel Krodman’s mother character just slid down the vacuum weeping after the grandmother had died. (Shout-out to Nancy Boykin, who is always incredible in my book.) I also really liked the volcano children and the planet sequence at the end, with the older folks handing the planets to the children. That plus the “Don’t forget my name” march really held me to the fire on my own environmental choices in a way I liked a lot.

 

The thing is — Movement 4 felt like it was trying too hard for me. I think putting those generations on stage together is already a radical act, so let that speak for itself. Let those beautiful endearing committed elders and those effervescent kids speak for themselves.

 

Espie

I especially feel your last sentiment.  They spent a lot of time trying to justify that these bodies were together on stage especially through the attempt to make a clear narrative and the moment where they all introduced themselves which I thought was really heartwarming but I questioned how necessary it was.

 

Maura

Agreed. It was a weird blend of heartwarming and Theatre, wasn’t it? Which was borne out through the design, and I did like that. The pageant costumes and the volcano and the planets worked very well for me. I think the design of the whole piece was pretty spectacular, I guess.

 

Espie

Notably for me, I thought that the sound design was so lovely and appreciated the care that was taken to highlight the little things – like the crunching of a carrot or just the live sounds of the wrestlers feet.

Maura

Yes! And while we’re on sound in general, I want to mention that the orchestra, especially in Movement 1, was incredible. As was that harpist, and the choir in Movement 5. There was a level of virtuosity in the music that made a lot of murkier choices utterly palatable for me.

 

Espie

Absolutely. Also, shout out to the crew and the technical director because in particular Movement 1 was a beast.

 

Maura

Oh man, definitely. Those folks made a lot of impossible stuff happen. Related though, the transitions were artistically clunky, even though they took the least amount of time humanly possible. The scenelets felt shoehorned in to me. I’ll watch Jenn Kidwell eat marshmallows and tell me things forever, but I kept thinking “Oh I hear the set moving” and “What is this actually about?” during the little “short pause” interludes.

Espie

I don’t think being constantly reminded that we were at the theatre did much more for me then offer an opportunity to check out for a second and make eye contact with someone about how strange the last movement was.  It encouraged me to intellectually engage with the material in real time, but kept me from completely buying into the world emotionally which I think was detrimental.

 

Maura

That is such a good point.

 

I’ll just say to round things out that Movement 5 was not really my cup of tea/a little boring. I understood that it was about the human struggle/survival of the fittest, but as a pretty standard metaphor for that, it didn’t hold up to the ambition or experiments of the other movements for me.

 

Espie

Both of my brothers were wrestlers and the experience of watching live wrestling or even observing a wrestler train is super nerve wracking and scary.  I think by turning that sport into such a choreographed piece all of the immediacy went away

 

Also human struggle isn’t an exclusively masculine thing!  It was a strange note to end on in an otherwise fairly inclusive cast.

 

Maura

I hadn’t thought of that, you are completely right. I wonder if that is part of why I checked out!

 

I do want to acknowledge the theatre community’s frustration about the large budget for this show, and say that I don’t think we should blame Pig Iron for being able to have a massive budget for 3 years of development around a show. I think there is an important conversation there about the funding system in theatre/Philadelphia/art, and that system deserves our questions. However, theatre doesn’t have as much of a formula for creating this kind of epic experience tackling huge cosmic ideas, and I think Pig Iron’s effort was ambitious and fascinating, even in the areas that it failed for me personally.

 

Espie

Agreed.  I remember the first time I saw a Pig Iron show and it was thrilling and eye-opening experience that really stretched my definition of what theatre could be, and, while I didn’t necessarily have that reaction this time around, I hope this piece inspires folks to experiment further.

 

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Fringe Quick Takes: We Shall Not Be Moved

JG is saying farewell to Fringe

Intricately woven design reveals that even in a world only meant to be and see white, even in the continued attempts at erasure, black people and blackness remain not invisible but in extravisible. The set, with its clean white boxes, the moonlit atmosphere (or is that the glow of a flashlight?) and the ancestral OG costumes were supported by projections that served to make these elements sing in harmony.
Speaking of harmony, Libretto by Marc Bamuth Joseph and Music by Daniel Bernard Roumain have got the pulse of hip-hop, opera, soul, funk, and spoken word, with hints of Baldwin littered here and there- what you’ve been waiting for.
Directed deftly by Bill T. Jones. We Shall Not Be Moved spins truth and further confirmation of the fact that transparency, examination and reformation of education are necessary in all walks of life in order to make way for the next step in human evolution or else we will find an end in guns, ghost towns, despair and ruin.
The cast of phenomenal creatures inspires.  The process for them is just as important as the performance itself which serves as a lesson,  that the products we as humans project on the surface are nothing without careful attention to the process of be-coming each and every day. Shine on!

Fringe Quick Takes: Mujeres

JG, the intrepid reviewer, is winding down their Fringe 

Costumes by Baozhen Chai brilliantly illustrates the shades of complexity wound in side of every woman.
Milk sets out to explore the give and take of motherhood, and in doing so also speaks to women on the journey of personal or conceptual birth and rebirth.  I very much enjoyed the exploration in breath.  The command a woman has over the revealed and welcomed aspects of the self.
Film collaboration by Jasmine Lynea gives us glimpses of place while getting a more intimate view of the dancer’s body and the story it tells.
HERstory combines dance,  poetry, film to Gavino’s heritage to the surface. Gavino explores her Filipino ancestry a precolonial matriarchy in parallel with the journey of African women. The journey takes us through cycles of celebration, abuse, oppression,  resignation,  release, discovery,  education and leaves us at the brink with a child on the verge of adolescence and her ancestors at her back.
Lady power!

Fishtown, A Hipster Noir: Tribe of Fools

NAN is a cis woman actor/maker who is truthfully pretty overwhelmed with the garden of earthly delights that is Fringe.

ESPIE is a queer mixed director and producer

 

NAN

So, pockets?

ESPIE

I was coming off of a really stressful weekend and was feeling pretty exhausted and overwhelmed.  I’ve enjoyed Tribe of Fools’ shows in a past and was looking for some Grade A escapism.  

NAN

I’ve only seen one ToF show in the past (Antihero) and was excited to see some rad fight/physical theatre. I was also there on a Saturday night and they had a completely sold out house who ADORED the show and were crazy vocal, and that was lovely. What did you think about the lights, sound, set, costume, etc?

ESPIE

I was there on Monday and had a similar experience with the audience.

I really loved how the set was used (designed by Peter Smith) and I thought the shadows were super fun!  The blinds lightly blowing in the wind were very pleasing.

NAN

Agreed! When I first walked in I was not very impressed with the set, but then I realized that it served the purpose of giving a lot of shadow spaces to work with and having many places for actors to pop out of as well. And it’s got several levels, which is great. Might have benefited from a little distressing, but very economical. And I really enjoyed the use of the high nook in the Bluver Theater as another shadow space

 

ESPIE

I’ve seen so many shows in the Bluver and I was really excited to see that space utilized in an entirely new way.  I thought the lights (designed by Robin Stamey) and sound (designed by Damien Figueras) worked well in conversation with one another and definitely helped create a very fun noir atmosphere, though I found when actors came too far downstage I lost their faces.

NAN

I really enjoyed their especially “noir” ish ensembles the most– Lowell’s high waisted pants and ribbon belt, Bradley, the whole Shadow ensemble– and the rest of the design, while not really noir at all, served the purpose for character.

 

ESPIE

Yeah, I thought it was particularly successful in highlighting that we were playing with the collision of the noir genre and Fishtown “hipsters” (I honestly don’t know what that word means anymore), but, having lived in Fishtown for the past 2 years, the costumes for Claire (Jenna Kuerzi) and James Aimsley (Joe Ahmed) were definitely outfits I saw walking down Frankford Ave. on a daily basis  

NAN

For sure. I think both the “noir” and the “hipster” looks were successful– I guess I was just a little bit lost as to where or how the two were supposed to intersect. But I guess it was also just that I came in expecting a fusion of the two (Fishtown Noir isn’t the title of the play but that’s what I’ve been hearing it referred to) and it seemed more like they coexisted thematically but didn’t really merge.

 

ESPIE

I actually think Bradley (played by Zachary Chiero) represented a blending of the two worlds really well.  Though, I was hungry to see both of those worlds merge in one of their dance/fight sequences – particularly when Claire and Lowell (Tara Demmy) met.  

NAN

Yeah, agreed. I would have love to see worlds collide more. In a similar vein, I was also initially pretty confused about the introduction of the simulation glasses fantasy sequences– like the first bunny sequence? I loved it, but it felt like it came out of nowhere.

ESPIE

I enjoyed how nonsensical the bunnies seemed at first, and, for me, because they established that the glasses allowed you to act out your fantasies at the very beginning of the show with the opening number, it wasn’t a huge jump.  What I didn’t necessarily see, though, were the differences in the “reality settings” that were mentioned with the glasses.  As the reality setting got higher, was it supposed to get scarier?  Because other then that, I didn’t see much of a difference between the Level 7 that was seen at the top of the show and the Level 9 that was seen later.

NAN

Good point. What did you think about the direction?

 

ESPIE

I thought where the direction really shone was in the stylistic choices – notably the creative use of shadow – which makes sense because the director (Peter Smith) was the set designer.  The moment when Shadow (Kyle Yackoski) grabs the virtual reality glasses from the nook was particularly creative. I don’t usually see those roles doubled and, given the physical nature of Tribe of Fool’s work, having the director and set designer be the same person made a lot of sense.

I think there were several moments in the noir world that I wanted the humor to be highlighted by the characters’ acting in an increasingly ridiculous way as opposed to other characters commenting on the ridiculousness from an outside perspective. For example, when Lowell was directly addressing the audience she could have invaded and manipulated the space more fully and ridiculously as opposed to Bradley continuously having to point out that Lowell kept breaking from their conversation.  Additionally there were some bits of blocking that happened on the floor – Lowell’s scene where she was laying out newspaper clippings and when James Aimsley was on the medicine ball- that I could not see at all.

NAN

Yeah, I also couldn’t see anything that happened on or near the floor. For me, I think the dance numbers were the highlight of the show. The number in which Shadow steals the virtual reality glasses especially. Much credit to Chiero for the choreography, it was a real pleasure to watch.

 

ESPIE

Agreed.  I go to Tribe of Fools for the dance and fight choreography and they always deliver on that.  I also appreciate that the humor of world remained consistently woven into the choreography.   Tribe of Fools does a great job of movement and dance accessible to audiences that might find it high brow otherwise.  

NAN

For sure. Their particular brand of humor was integrated really beautifully throughout. I also appreciated the fact that they had a woman lead detective and it didn’t have to be commented on. And how utterly normal Bradley’s queerness was. That said I would have loved more people of color in the show. Joe Ahmed is fantastic and I’d like them to hire more POC.

 

ESPIE

There could have been more representation with the design team as well.  I know Joe was an understudy last year and am curious if understudy casts is a way that this group works to make a more inclusive ensemble.  

NAN

It’s certainly a lot to expect an actor to do without knowing their work beforehand, I can see that.

Anything else you’d like to add?

ESPIE

Yes, huge props to all of the performers involved for doing some incredibly demanding physical work while giving really charismatic performances.  I thought every character, especially given the often referential humor, could have easily fallen into a place that was one-note, but the actors were all able ground their characters in really realistic ways.  I appreciate the Caitlin Weigel’s writing offered full fledged characters which doesn’t always happen in genre pieces.  I found that everyone was so likable, and  it definitely added towards making the ending more deliciously complicated, which I think is usually necessary in a piece that deals with the perils of technology.

Overall, I had a damn good time.

NAN

Completely agreed.

 

The Bald Soprano: Idiopathic Ridiculosity Consortium

Sarah is an administrator and Artmaker

Laura is an actor, director and deviser 

 

Sarah

Let’s start with what is in our pockets about this show. I know one of the actors but have no other relationships to the company.

 

Laura

I came in with a whole bunch. I’ve worked with IRC and know/have worked with/love almost everybody onstage. But I’ve never been to the Bethany Mission Gallery, and it is AMAZING. That lighting fixture walking in was awesome.

 

Sarah

The old radio collection could have taken my whole day!

 

Laura

It’s crazy that a play has never happened in there before. The IRC (which is to say, Tina Brock) is really good at finding unconventional places.

 

Sarah

Do you know this play well? Have you seen it?

 

Laura

Yeah, BRAT’s 24 Hour Version. And I’ve read it. I go back and forth on the play. Have you?

 

Sarah

I’ve seen it before but it’s been years. I had a vague recollection but nothing concrete.

 

Laura

It’s a hard one. Especially with “English” accents.

 

Sarah

I will say I came into the show wondering why it was being produced at this moment.

 

Laura

It’s not as emotionally poignant or accessible as some of Ionesco’s other work, so I am curious as to why this play, besides  the fact that it’s fun for actors to spit those words out. I have a friend who thinks this is the worst play ever, so I also had his voice in the back of my head.

 

Sarah

Yeah, I kept thinking “this is a really good acting exercise but I’m not sure what else it’s for.”

 

Laura

I’m picky with absurdist theatre in the same way I’m picky about shock theatre. I need it to be truly shocking or sublimely silly, and I get sad when it falls in between.

 

Sarah

I was really impressed with John Zak’s performance. I felt like his choices were as big as they needed to be.

 

Laura

He is, without a doubt, one of the most underrated actors in this city. He is ALWAYS giving 100% and remains honest and funny.

 

Sarah

I would have watched him keep doing that show forever. Tina Brock’s face can go from heartbreak to hysterics in a second, which is awesome. I thought Arlen Hancock as the fire chief was great, too. He brought a different energy to the room. Everyone else was manic and he was a bit more steady.

 

Laura

His stillness was really amazing. When he walked in that room I was like THIS IS THE PLAY. That stupid (see also: amazing) giant fire hose!

 

Sarah

I felt like the four main characters were all aiming to be manic cartoons but only Zak really went there, so Arlen’s performance was a strong contrast. And a breath of fresh air. I loved his whole outfit so much, silly giant fire hose included.

 

Laura

When playing a manic cartoon, it’s finding the human underneath that’s the trick. There just weren’t as many levels in the performances for me to stay entertained. I found myself checking my watch a lot.  I thought the stillness was VERY compelling. The words, not so much. The weird sort-of-accents were just so distracting.

 

Sarah

Speaking of the fire hose, costumes by Erica Hoelscher were really delightful.

 

Laura

ERICA HOELSCHER. IS. THE. BEST. COSTUME. DESIGNER. IN. THE. CITY. ALL CAPS.

 

Sarah

I don’t know if I’ve seen her work before, but I thoroughly enjoyed her choices for this production. Can we talk about the maid?  I hated it.

 

Laura

I did too, but not because of the actor. Tom Dura is really compelling. His small role in The Chairs last year was incredible.

 

Sarah

People dressed in a gender nonconforming way, in this case a man dressed in feminine clothing, is not inherently funny or absurd, and to present that as a joke is reckless.

 

Laura

And just not necessary.

 

Sarah

It didn’t help the story, and in fact made the moments where the couples were acting annoyed with or horrified by the maid extra offensive. As someone who didn’t know the show very well before going in, I kept wondering if this was just a super offensive old play or a super insensitive choice.

 

Laura

Tina Brock is an extraordinarily thoughtful director. For her to make a decision like that, which almost seems flippant, is really strange.

 

Sarah

I could tell some choices were so careful, so I felt like it had to be a deliberate action.  The direction overall felt good, but I think an outside eye was needed. The scenes Tina wasn’t in felt much more specific. I question whether people should direct themselves.

 

Laura

I agree 100%. It’s too hard. Devising work and knowing what you need to do to make that work is one thing, but crafting a really hard, established, piece while being inside of it is almost impossible.

 

Sarah

I did love how stripped down the production was. The costumes were the only detailed design element. The set was mostly just the gallery we were in, which was a perfect mishmash of items all over the walls, plus a scant living room setup. No lighting design and a minimal sound design. The produciton really relied on the cast. The text is so much that a distracting design could have made it even harder to enjoy and process.

 

Laura

The design was definitely very clean, and you could see the love.

 

Sarah

Honestly the funniest thing in the play for me was how loud the stairs were whenever anyone entered or exited.

 

Laura

I just get so whirlwinded in Ionesco plays and it’s hard for me to catch up enough to laugh. I need to be surprised, not confused.

 

Sarah

There were moments where I registered the joke but we were already on an entirely different joke’s setup. I felt like I had no time to process. Although it also felt like everyone else in the room already knew the play.  There were some laughs at the very top where I wondered ” is everyone laughing cause they already know what’s about to happen?

 

Laura

I think a lot of the people in the audience are IRC regulars, and Tina has a very specific directing style. You can spot it right away. So it’s very possible they were like “oh, I know where I am.”

 

Sarah

Overall, I’m not sure why this play was chosen or what they were trying to say with it.   I know- it’s absurdism! But there’s normally a more relevant or of the moment point being made by this absurdist company.

 

Laura

IRC is a really incredible company.

 

Sarah

I agree wholeheartedly. IRC is needed in the scene for sure and I’m glad they are casting such talented people.  This wasn’t my favorite of their work because of what felt like a transphobic misstep, and the choice of a play that doesn’t really speak to the moment, but I’m rooting for this company and I’ll be back.

 

Laura

And I feel very fortunate to know that the Bethany Mission Gallery is a place I can visit.

 

Sarah

That space is incredible!

Fringe Quick Takes- Puppet-delphia Fringe Slam

JG is up to Fringey business
My pockets: I  was full of hope for a double header of ridiculousness. Then being given the dual surprise of a very cold theater and uterine cramps made the event a little difficult for me.
Without a program it is difficult for me to give credit where it is due so I’ll say what I saw.  Our host Gwendolyn Rooker is a clown-sight to behold and not to be reckoned with. The live jazz band for transitions was a special treat. The night was a showcase of experiments in the good, the bawd, and the ugly. An Italian fairytale,  a game show,  a birthday, interstellar fellatio, a dancing penis, a lecture, a fantasy,  and more.  I laughed, groaned and realized that with so many women on the stage I wanted a vagina piece in the conversation (I guess that’s on me.)

Fringe Quick Take: Wild: A Clown Western

JG has a whole lotta fringe going on 
My pockets: I came in with thoughts of a clown workshop I’d enjoyed this year, and curiosity at what other clowns were up to.
The design is like a kiddie club house house cracked out on cardboard,  dollar store,  and thrift shop magic.
Music by Jo Vito Ramirez and Kevin Sommerville was ridiculous and winky Shout outs to Ramirez on harmonica and Biagiotti on the shovel.
Wild has theft, horse riding, food fights, poop, romance, and resurrection. Directed by Ryan Rebel the piece aims to flip the wild-western genre on its head and land it in a pile of spaghetti, cool whip, and maraschino cherries (Hats off to stage management for cleaning up that mess) I wanted less presentation and more wonder.
Notables among the clowns were Deputy Compote, Sir Daffodil, and Judith– way to bring me into the world using breath, contact, and flexibility. Take homes: don’t play so hard, and love more.