A critic famously quipped of the original Camelot that the producers should close the show and tour the set. That thought crossed my mind during Superterranean, the latest work of socially conscious performance art from Pig Iron Theatre Company, presented as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The work’s lead artist, Tony-winning set designer Mimi Lien, creates an arresting visual world that masks a hollow approach to a serious topic.
A deafening silence spreads across the piece, which features no dialogue and only occasional sound cues. The wordless atmosphere allows the audience members to infuse the quietude of the occasionally striking, sometimes disturbing images with their own layers of meaning. The largely plotless 80 minutes thus becomes a sort of avant-garde choose your own adventure.
Lien and her primary collaborator, Pig Iron co-artistic director Dan Rothenberg, clearly have ideas they want to impart to their viewers. Promotional materials reference urban sprawl, gentrification, and wastelands of oil refineries–the latter topic is especially resonant on the heels of an explosion that tore through South Philadelphia in June, not far from the site of this performance. Pig Iron’s choice of venue–2300 Arena, an isolated hippodrome that sits among a stretch of factories–seems a deliberate, calculated extension of the work’s themes.
The performance thus relies heavily on what associations the audience brings to it. In a program quote, Lien herself acknowledges that the projection of meaning onto inanimate infrastructure is what set in motion the creation of Superterranean: “When I see a huge refinery, with its vast and intricate system of metal pipes, tanks, catwalks, I feel inexplicably emotional. Why do these structures evoke in my body such a deep-seated feeling of pleasure and despair?” Those who feel similarly to Lien will likely find the piece profound, moving, and unsettling, in much the same way that Lien encounters an oil refinery with equal measures disgust and desire.
I found the entire endeavor curiously empty. Whatever deep-seated emotion prompted the conception is absent from the finished product, which unspools almost as a parade of experimental theater tropes. An informed viewer can pinpoint the hand of Robert Wilson in the glacial, deliberate movement exercises that make up the majority of the narrative–a word I use lightly–or hear Meredith Monk’s influence on Lea Bertucci’s discordant, unpleasant original music. The actors, a mixture of Pig Iron company members and guest artists, are afterthoughts, reinforcing the avant-garde idea that individuality of style is a hindrance rather than an asset.
Familiar faces in the cast include Jenn Kidwell, co-creator and star of the brilliant Underground Railroad Game; Dito van Reigersberg, Pig Iron co-founder and highly regarded Philadelphia performer; and the notable New York actor Tony Torn. Yet only the talented Mel Krodman manages to rise above the material–and above her costume (by Olivera Gajic), a ratty fur coat that brings to mind the world’s worst community-theater Grizabella–and craft a dimensional, memorable character. Whenever she takes center stage, the ideas Lien and Rothenberg wish to explore actually become tangible; she communicates the pleasure and horror of the urban wasteland with refreshing clarity.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Superterranean would be a triumph of aesthetics and a fiasco in other ways. Lien is not a narrative theater artist, and Rothenberg has shown in recent offerings (like 2017’s A Period of Animate Existence) a receding lack of interest in presenting fully developed ideas. Not surprisingly, Lien stunningly transforms the raw space of 2300 Arena into a visual smorgasbord, beginning with a prologue of larval creation (ravishingly lighted by Barbara Samuels) and segueing into the cold, faceless reality of the modern industrial world. But sets alone cannot make a satisfying theatrical experience, and I wasn’t surprised to overhear someone say that Lien finalized the design elements before she and Rothenberg even began devising the play proper. It shows.
At times, the finished result skirts perilously close to parody–although it lacks the necessary self-awareness of satire. In recent years, Pig Iron has largely stepped away from the Philadelphia theater scene, concentrating primarily on an MFA program it operates through the University of the Arts. The company has also faced criticism for its receipt of staggeringly large institutional support, and how those grants were applied in their last Fringe show. The prevailing image, at least to this viewer, has been a company caught in a state of existential crisis–no longer hip young provocateurs, yet unable to break away from style on which they made their name.
In some ways, this work’s portmanteau title speaks volumes: as the company tries again to wrestle with serious and urgent topics, the results remain resolutely earthbound.
Correction: A previous version of this review referred to a controversy over “unpaid” performers and that reference was removed since the article cited about the controversy mentions a variety of forms of compensation for the participants in that show.