Head Trip

Philly’s Pig Iron Theatre Company pushes boundaries at DTW

By GUS SOLOMONS JR.

The seven versatile performers of Pig Iron Theatre Company from Philadelphia not only make you believe what they’re saying—whether or not it seems to makes sense—they also sing, dance, and play musical instruments with such flair you overlook tiny lapses of technique. Their “Shut Eye,” created in collaboration with the cast by co-directors Don Rothenberg, co-artistic director of the company, and the late Joseph Chaikin—notorious founder of the experimental Open Theater, which redefined physical theater in the 60s and 70s—played Dance Theater Workshop, May 5 through 8.

“Shut Eye” stretches the boundaries of DTW’s usual fare. Dance movement does play an important role here, but no more so than music and dialog, in service of Deborah Stein’s witty, fractured script that considers the blurry line between waking and sleeping. When a comatose accident victim, Matthew Henshaw (Geoff Sobelle), is visited in the hospital by his sister, Judy (Sarah Sanford), a medical conference in the form of a heated corporate meeting breaks out around the bed.

Meanwhile, April, an insomniac (Cassandra Friend), with a pillow tied to her head, wanders around searching for the sleep lab. Brain surgeon Dr. Michaels (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel) prepares a vegetarian meal for his corporate exec wife Christina (Suli Holum). Their tender, funny in-bed scene is the philosophical heart of the play—she’s drugged with a muscle relaxant for a back spasm, and he’s trying to decide what’s real: this moment or what he thought was a dream he might’ve had during his afternoon nap.

The 80-minute performance work journeys through the minds of these odd, charming characters in overlapping scenes, one downstage, one up. Rolling hospital screens conceal magical entrances and exits of people and props. Characters also descend from an upstage ladder, on which Sobelle and Sanford do a trapeze routine and dive onto a mattress below. The rapid pacing keeps us on our toes—and the performers on theirs.

When groggy, sleep-deprived April arrives at the drugstore checkout, manager Joe Terrelson (James Sugg) hangs her shopping bag handles on coma guy’s big toes and scans her items across his crotch. Sugg, Sobelle, and Dito van Reigersberg brainstorm the possible merits of water-filled pillows, while bouncing like jumping jacks. The group serenades April, Gilbert and Sullivan operetta-style, self-accompanied by accordion, saxophone, and wood blocks. Another big “production number” has the women in fishnets and top hats, doing a jazzy strut, to the bluesy scatting of van Reigersberg’s rich tenor voice.

The multi-skilled, attractive, and engaging ensemble brings Stein’s clever text and Chaikin and Rothenberg’s absurdist vision to vivid, surreal life, wearing Rosemarie McKelvey’s smart costumes, under John Steven Hoey’s lively lighting, in Hiroshi Iwasaki’s aptly clinical setting of deep blue stage drapes and white furniture. Accordionist/ performer Sugg composed the music. Nick P. Rye’s atmospheric sound design includes well-placed cell phone rings, hospital pages, and scanner beeps.

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