Pulling theater out of a hat

Anton, meet Groucho: Pig Iron's "Chekhov Lizardbrain," like all its productions, crawls with classical and fringy ideas, mad movement, and clowning beyond words.

Posted: March 28, 2007

Pig Iron Theatre Company's 20th production marries the work of Russia's greatest playwright with Dr. Paul D. MacLean's Triune Brain Theory and behaviorist and autism pioneer Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation.

In this regard, it is atypically typical, an original work born of experimentation that is as much physical as verbal, tying theatrical history to intellectual ideas with a great deal of movement and clowning, to say nothing of hats.

Hats are a Pig Iron constant.

Chekhov Lizardbrain, opening at the Latvian Society on Friday, features four actors wearing 100-year-old undergarments and top hats while obsessing about real estate, one of Chekhov's leitmotifs, to say nothing of a preoccupation with contemporary culture.

"It's based loosely on Chekhov's Three Sisters," says director Dan Rothenberg, during a recent rehearsal break with visiting artist and cocreator Robert Quillen Camp.

Very loosely.

The three brothers often move spasmodically, as if they were no smarter than, well, lizards, and owe as much to Marx (Brothers, that is) as to the transcendent playwright. A removable brain plays a prominent role.

Pig Iron, consisting of three artistic directors and six company members, has been hailed as the city's "most imaginative theater company," attracting a 2005 Obie Award (honoring non-Broadway productions in New York), 36 Barrymore nominations, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and invitations to perform at festivals throughout Europe and South America.

With no home, the company is peripatetic, utilizing churches, warehouses, other companies' theaters, and, now, the Latvian Society at Seventh and Spring Garden Streets, where the crew has managed to squeeze in 130 seats.

Pig Iron comes from a reference in David Mamet's American Buffalo "which has little meaning," Rothenberg says with a shrug. "It's raw, crude iron that's not very useful, though it's used in theater curtains to help things fly in and out."

Fellow artistic directors and great friends Rothenberg, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel and Dito van Reigersberg began performing together as students at Swarthmore College (where Bauriedel and van Reigersberg roomed all four years), before founding the company professionally in 1994. Quickly, Pig Iron become a staple of both the Edinburgh and Philadelphia Fringe Festivals. The three colleagues regularly teach at their alma mater and Princeton.

At this moment, eight weeks into the rehearsal process, and with less than two weeks before opening, Lizardbrain was still a work in progress, about halfway done, the script being rehashed nightly.

"Each piece is unpredictable. We don't know where it's going, allowing us to make new discoveries," van Reigersberg says.

"We've always worked like this. We're an acting style in search of a script and characters, and we enjoy the process, beginning with ideas, other texts, and developing the physical structure of the place along with the words and music," says Rothenberg, 33, who directs and writes most of the work. "Too much of theater is wholly reliant on the words, trying to suit a performance to fit the writing, tailoring the role compared to other performances. Playwriting is not just about words."

During the rehearsal, Rothenberg instructs the all-male cast to go through the play "using as minimal an amount of text as possible" to explore meaning and movement, releasing them from the tyranny of language.

Bauriedel and van Reigersberg, both 34, are actors (Rothenberg gave up acting long ago), and both appear in Lizardbrain. Van Reigersberg has also managed a second career as the terribly tall, hairy and supremely gifted drag queen, Miss Martha Graham Cracker. Filling out the cast are Geoff Sobelle and James Sugg, permanent Pig Iron performers. (The remaining Pig Iron troupe members are actors Sarah Sanford, Solveig Holum and Cassie Friend - who don't appear in the piece - and chief technical wizard Perry Fertig.)

To follow Pig Iron's history, and experience the company's works, is to see a group of artists who are never bored or confined by convention. Cafeteria (1997) is a wordless take on Americana set in a lunchroom. Hell Meets Henry Halfway (2004), Bauriedel explains, is "a hyperverbal, dense text play about the sexiness in believing in nothing." Pay Up (2005), with a cast of 30, is billed as "a multi-media purchasing experiment about monkeys, money and personal choice."

"We were very inspired by the experimental ensemble theaters, Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, the Group Theater, the Living Theatre, the Théâtre du Soleil in France and the Gardzienice in Poland," Bauriedel says.

After 16 years of working together constantly, the three artistic directors remain close, living within five blocks of one another in South Philadelphia.

"We hang out way too much together," van Reigersberg says.

"It's kind of a mystery to us still how this all works, including creating new works," van Reigersberg says. "Even when the ideas are complex, we want to make something that's challenging and unusual and unprecedented, yet that you can follow. We don't ever want to be artsy-fartsy and beyond the audience's comprehension. We're riding that fine line between experimental and accessible."

Somehow, the trio learned to split responsibilities and run a business, for which they had little or no training. "Dan did the marketing. Dito did the fund-raising. And I did the finances," Bauriedel says. "And somehow we watched this company grow from a $15,000 budget to a $500,000 organization that can easily spend $750,000."

The partners have been able to hire three full-time business staffers to run the office in Chinatown, though the delineation of their overall contributions remains clear. "Dan is the idea person. Dito is the people person. And I'm the spiritual person," Bauriedel says.

Pig Iron averages one production a year. The next piece, beginning in workshops, brings together Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and a morgue, possibly for the first time.

"Shakespeare was trying to make the play a comedy but he wanted to write Hamlet. The play is really obsessed with sex and death, so we're going to do something visual with that," Rothenberg says.

"We're trying to make Shakespeare not so boring," he adds. As if there was any chance of Pig Iron failing to do that.


Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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