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A CurtainUp Review

Babies like clouds and buses.— Flat baby's ":mother"
Cardboard character by Beth Nixon (Photo: Pig Iron)
Cankerblossom's protagonists are an everyday kind of couple (Beth Nixon and Alex Torra) who embark on a quest. They aim to recover a mysteriously acquired flat baby that a flat falcon has stolen from them. The shallow, colorful set of their living room breaks away to reveal a dark hidden world that they must negotiate. During the journey they meet delightfully strange characters, played broad and physical in the Pig Iron tradition. The pair experience wide-ranging, nonsensical challenges in a Lewis Carroll mode, and they turn out to be pretty resourceful. The dark saga, however, shows fault lines later on.

While many theatre companies work with projections, Pig Iron is in the vanguard. With their fresh ideas and stealth bells and whistles, they bend the usual use of media. It is particularized and selectively animated, the exact opposite of the usually encountered big screens. Ingenious set-shifting is built into the scenic design. Sometimes small projections with surprising bits of cute interactive animation appear like magic on impossibly mobile, little cardboard buildings that are twirled away, trailing glimpses of light. This is perhaps the most entertaining feature of the show. The arch-villain, Mr. Eye is a mediated invention and a wonder to behold.

Contrasts within the production include the playing off of low tech and high tech. Drab cardboard-colored characters interact with animations. Cardboard masks and costume elements are sometimes elaborate, sometimes utterly plain. And the dark world is meticulously engineered, yet the action manages to come off as fortuitous. The kooky characters the company has created are fine-tuned through physical acting work.

Original musical numbers thread through the hidden world. Up in the back rafters gifted musicians provide tunes and accompaniment, and each time an improbable creature wiggles up to the mic, the little oddball song is a joy.

Yet niggling problems surface and grow. Beyond tons of good old groan-producing punning, tiny shards of philosophy and a few oblique references, much of the language is uninspired. The deliberate ordinariness sometimes works, but sometimes irks. Further, the distinction between story locales, "In-Between" and "The flats of Flat", is not made completely clear, so it is hard to tell who is round and who is flat, a distinction that would be useful to know at the end. And despite the choreographed set movement, the fun of the music, sound effects, fantastic characters, and localized media magic, there is also dead time and prolonged exposure to cardboard color. The show loses its punch as it gets too episodic and out of hand, and it starts to feel like being stuck in an all-day children's game.

Competing ideas vie for attention within a shallow, sprawling plot: There's the unaddressed matter of who sent the package that started it all, there's finding the baby, the confusion of motives and objectives of assorted denizens of the In-Between world, the question of who is flat, the matter of finding the cankerblossom (which is explained by an actor speaking from behind a full mask, and very hard to understand). The infrequently seen villain, Mr. Eye, is a marvel, but not much of a nemesis. The falcon, who should show up in the resolution, simply disappears due to cast doubling. Could he have been shown through animation?

What happens as a result of the successful quest? In a reverse Oz situation, one might reasonably expect a return to a world of warmth, light, and color. But it appears that their world is now flat and it will stay that way. So, are the parents flat or are they round? Will they remain in FlatWorld or will they take this baby home? It's not clear. Observers of their long quest deserve more resolution.

But the completed quest is ultimately neglected as the nominal center of the story is shunted off to one side. The baby is found, but marginalized, a MacGuffin. The little family is literally sidelined as minor characters perform a musical number. The inspired addition of a trumpet at just the right moment helps to lend the impression of a closure that is not really present. Alternately brilliant and clunky, this impressive yet naggingly unsatisfying show dazzles with sleight of hand as the story falters.

Although a couple of regular Pig Iron members are in the show and Dan Rothenberg directs, we don't encounter the founding principal players and other core performers we are accustomed to seeing. (Some played key parts in this project's development, and some have major roles in other Live Arts shows this year.) Pig Iron performers are involved in a skein of related companies, and Pig Iron has initiatives and plans of its own to nurture. Have they gone corporate?

We have enjoyed numerous convincing displays of Pig Iron's manifest genius. The company is admirable for its reflex to experimentation and to the creation of something fantastic. And this show is fantastic in many respects, but disappointing in others. This is just a detour, right? Cankerblossom as family fun, as Pig Lite? After this experiment it would be good to see the cerebral restored to their signature physical/cerebral link.

Conceived and Created by Pig Iron Theatre Company
Text: Tim Sawicki and Pig Iron
Directed by Dan Rothenberg

Cast and co-creators: Hinako Arao, Beth Nixon, David Sweeny, Alex Torra
Set Design and Animation: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Leslie Rogers, Cardboard creations: Beth Nixon
Video Projection Josh Higgason
Lighting Design: James Clotfelter
Music and Songs: Rosie Langabeer; additional songs David Sweeny, Dito Van Reigersberg
Sound Design: Nick Kourtides
Sept 1-18, 2010
80 minutes
Philadelphia Live Arts Festival
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 09/04 performance. At Christ Church Neighborhood House
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