By Greg Kotis
Directed by Mark Kirkstan
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
When Pig Farm showed at the Contemporary American Theater Festival last year, you couldn’t tell that it was a comedy until people started getting killed. Not so for 1st Stage’s riotous staging of the latest from the creator of Urinetown. 1st Stage hits the laugh lines early and hard, and by the time the blood is shed – or, rather, spurted – we’re all in on the joke.
Greg Kotis is, at bottom, a literary deconstructionist, and Pig Farm does for drama what Urinetown did for the musical … it takes the elements, blows them up a hundred times, and makes fun of them. Consider his characters, for example. In drama, every character should have an objective, which propels him through the plot. In Pig Farm, every character pursues his objective with such singleminded focus that it make him ridiculous – Tom (Tucker Sparkman), who wants to save his farm; his wife Tina (Belen Pifel), who wants a baby; his work-release employee Tim (Charley Mann), who wants to have sex with Tina and run away with her, and Teddy (Lucas Beck), an EPA bureaucrat, who wants to bring down Tom and apparently every other pig farmer in America, for his own nefarious reasons.
“For years I’ve been doing laundry and whatnot,” Tina bawls to her husband. “Now I want a baby.” Alas, Tom has important farm-saving work – specifically, dumping fecal sludge in the nearby pristine river – which will prevent him from baby-making. So Tina turns to the more-than-willing Tim, who joins her for a tryst in the laundry room. This, however, does not deter Tina’s efforts to mate with Tom. “I’ve been doing laundry – and whatnot – because I love you,” she complains. “Now it’s time to have a baby.” She swings her hips back and forth in an apparent effort to explain to Tom how babies are made. Regrettably, Tom has to complete a pig census in order to save his farm.
Teddy – who the others call “the G-Man” – has his own agenda. If there are more pigs on the farm than Tom says on his census form, the Government will seize the farm. If there are less pigs than the census form says, the Government will seize the farm. If the census form is accurate, but Tom exceeds his permitted allotment of pigs, the Government will seize the farm. Teddy has a badge and a gun, and has difficulty distinguishing between himself and the Government. “Your Government loves you,” he says, staring at Tina, barely keeping his tongue in his mouth.
If a character finds a metaphor, the other characters embrace it like converts to a new religion. Tim describes the “pot-bellied clouds”, certain portents of rain, to Tom. Later Tom directs Tina’s attention to the pot-bellied clouds. It’ll rain soon, for sure…and it does, a huge gully-washer, knocking out roads. It was the “pot-bellied clouds,” Tina later explains to Teddy, which turned the Pig Farm into mud.
So swaddled in self-referential, self-mocking cleverness, Pig Farm staggers through a myriad of improbable plot developments. Tom continues his desperate effort to show that he had the precisely correct pig count, and otherwise has done everything perfectly, so that he can keep the farm. Tim continues to try to convince Tina to recreate her moment of passion on top of the washing machine, and thereafter to flee with him on the motorcycle he will soon acquire. Tina continues to try to get Tom, or someone, to give her a baby. And Teddy…well, you’ll have to see for yourself.
A play written in order to make fun about the ways plays are written can be tedious, even when done by someone of Kotis’ gifts, but 1st Stage attacks the thing with great natural exuberance, and makes the show easy and fun to watch. I liked Pifel’s Tina, who imbued her character with a reckless physicality which made it clear that she would get that baby, or die in the attempt. And what more can I say about Lucas Beck, whose portrayal of a corrupt, mean-spirited EPA agent is his third triumph in three shows with this fine young company? His Teddy is a completely different character than the punctilious secretary he played in The Violet Hour, who was completely different than the distraught tuba-playing wannabe he portrayed in The Suicide. And yet all of his work has been subtle, textured, and utterly convincing. Beck is obviously yet another fine fresh talent to further leaven the DC theater (dare I say it?) scene.
The technical elements are generally top-drawer. Director Krikstan has designed a nice set, composed principally of Tom and Tina’s mud-and-sludge colored kitchen, with a giant cutout of the überpig Bessie looming overhead (Bob Krause is responsible for the scenic art). Peter Van Valkenburgh’s sound – pigs squealing, pigs grunting, pigs running, cars, trucks, gunshots and thunder – is superb. Anthony C.E. Nelson’s fight choreography can use a little work, but the actors all fall over nicely, and die in really cool ways. On the day I saw the show, 1st Stage was providing audio assistance for visually-impaired customers, another sign of a classy operation.
The secret to watching Pig Farm is to get to the point where you say “I get it! It’s a joke!” and thereafter enjoy the clownishness. 1st Stage will get you to that point early and thereafter you may giggle, guffaw, and snort like a pig.
When: Fridays through Sundays until March 8. Fridays are at 8; Saturdays are at 4 and 8; and Sundays are at 2 and 6. The 6 o’clock show on Sunday, February 22, is sold out.
Where: 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean, VA.
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