The Playgoer: REVIEW: Pig Farm

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

REVIEW: Pig Farm

Cooke and O'Hare
in "Pig Farm"
Pig Farm
by Greg Kotis
at the Roundabout Theatre Company
discount code: PFINTE

I'm proud to say I've been a Greg Kotis fan since long before Urinetown. 1990, to be precise. It was then that a fellow University of Chicago student took me to some industrial space downtown (Off-Loop, when it was still quite unfashionable and even dangerous) to check out a comedy group called Cardiff Giant. They were not only an amazing improv group frequenting campus hangouts like Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, but they also developed more ambitious collective full-length plays through extended improvisations. The one that night was called Rancho Obscuro. In typical Cardiff Giant style it mixed popular genre parody (in this case, a Western) with hyperbolic intellectual digressions, all performed with the troupe's razor-sharp sense of caricature and grounded silliness. As I remember it (which is much more impressionistic than factual) Kotis played the mayor of the town, a corrupt power-crazed business magnate with a scary flash in his eyes and a rapid-fire delivery of the gospel of success. (A kind of warm up to Urinetown's Mr Cladwell.) In both his performance and his writing of the character there was that mix of possessed zaniness and clear-focused intellectual satire that I associated with Monty Python. And like Python, Kotis and the C.G. troupe proudly bore the imprint of their classical education.

One other thing about that Off-Loop night: there were maybe two other people in the audience.

Flash forward ten years: Kotis teams up with a fellow Chicago alum, composer-lyricist Mark Hollmann, on a classic Cardiff Giant kind of project--a Brechtian musical about a corrupt industrial city where you can't freely go to the bathroom. Urinetown succeeded ultimately on Broadway because it could be received in so many ways--homage to Great American Musicals, environmental warning--but to me the lineage was clear back to those twin Chicago influences--the overducated wonkiness of the university and the shamelessly gross hijinx of Second City. It was first and foremost a genre parody of Labor romanticism--from Upton Sinclair to Brecht/Weill to "Cradle Will Rock." But once it moved from the Fringe to Uptown, that didn't matter so much as the toe-tapping tunes and the energetic production by director John Rando and his cast. How revolutionary on Broadway seeemed Kotis's theatrically self-referencing jokes on his own title, on clunky exposition, and in throwaway lyrics like "Your ticket, it says Urinetown!" But to anyone familiar with the comedy scene from which Kotis sprang, this was delightfully familiar.

Now, five years later, Kotis' Pig Farm at the Roundabout could be seen as his "graduation," in the eyes of the professional theatre world, into a bona fide "establishment" playwright. (Yes, he already won a pair of Tonys for Urinetown's book and lyrics, but that was a musical.) But that would be absolutely the wrong frame of mind to enter Pig Farm with. Because the truth is, those who describe the play as an extended sophomoric sketch... are right! That needn't be a grave flaw, however.

Pig Farm is, again, a Kotis parody, but of no one target. Yes, the Shepard world of Buried Child might come to mind, and director Rando has claimed to have emulated the "Steppenwolf style"--but I don't think that's where the play comes from. There's none of the signature Shepard symbolism and mysticism (not to mention alcoholism). No, I think the fun is being had more at the expense of those old "save the farm" movies. (A genre I particularly associate with 80s Hollywood; remember when "Places in the Heart," "The River," and yet a third one(?) all came out in the same year?) The mistake to make with Kotis' work is to force him into a strictly theatrical context as opposed to a broader swath of the popular culture of the past. For instance, the bloodletting at the end of Pig Farm has inspired some critics to assume Martin McDonagh is being sent up. As if we hadn't seen bloodpacks before "Lieutenant of Inishmore"... What's been overlooked in such misleading references is the real point of Pig Farm's finale--a delightfully bad-taste dare to push the "Fatal Attraction" trick ("whew, he's dead--wait, no he isn't!") past all point of endurance. It's a Hollywood thing, not something from Theatre History 101.

The other element in the mix of Pig Farm's travesties is simply the whole school of the "hard boiled." The tough talk of "regular folk" and "G-men" under pressing circumstances. Once you hear farmer Tom tell his farmhand, "The moment you count my pigs, that's the moment you become a man," you get the picture. The application of weighty intonations to flat-out funny words: "I'm talking sludge. Fecal sludge." And the obligatory insertion of the gutteral "Goddamn" into every sentence: "Godamnit, it's a goddamn pig run!" And so on...

The chief pleasure of Pig Farm is to watch a cast of four terrific comedy actors (Dennis O'Hare, Katie Finneran, Logan Marshall-Green, and John Ellison Cooke) play this style to the hilt. And no wonder--Kotis is at heart a performer, and writes wonderfully for them. While there's a bit of an imbalance between the more unhinged lunacy of O'Hare and Marshall-Greene as the plot's foils and the more sober Cooke and Finneran as the heroic married couple, the latter two's super-serious commitment to the insanity is just as funny.

As an extended parodic sketch, it would be nice if the play were tighter. The establishing of the premise and of the relationships takes a good thirty minutes. Also the character of the G-Man from the EPA (O'Hare) begins to wander a bit through the proceedings, as opposed to changing the equation of everything with his entrance. Ideally the whole play would be a 90-minute ride instead six scenes across two separate one-hour acts.

But even more ideally it would be at 10pm in the East Village with an open bar. Not at the Roundabout's "experimental" yet definitely posh second space, the Laura Pels. (Where, even though it's "Off-Broadway," tickets range from all the way from $66.25 to...$55.25.) It's hard to begrudge Kotis his chance to hit it big with the Roundabout. But is it really the best thing for the play in this case? First you have the diehard subscribers, who still expect theatre to not have changed since 1945. Then, single ticket buyers who are shelling out that money to see a brilliant "new play" are just set up for disappointment. Finally, as for the younger demographic of folk--those who grew up with the likes of Second City and Kids in the Hall and might actually appreciate Kotis' humor--are they even going to think about paying those prices? Even more daunting to them might be the prospect of them doing so, only to be surrounded by a much older audience not laughing along with them...

(BTW, I know I have preached here before that not all "young people" are strapped for cash. But it is hard to get anyone to pay those prices for something by relatively unknown artists and that has low "cultural capital"--i.e. there's no prestige/bragging rights in silly comedy.)

I certainly enjoyed Pig Farm. Even saw it twice. (Once for the bloggers' night, but also on my own the week before.) I do believe, though, that Kotis can make us laugh even harder and sustain an even stronger parody premise. It's a modest play, excellently done--but I can't get around the fact that its setting in the wealthy environs of the Roundabout makes it seem even more modest than it is. It deserves a better venue--by which I mean, of course, a "poorer" one. Anything to remind you of what it's like to go a club like Second City, pull up a stool, get a beer, and be ready to laugh at something not very serious at all.

Check out the other bloggers' reactions: Isaac Butler, Mark Armstrong, Matt Freeman, Dan Trujillo, Joshua James, Ian Hill, and James Comtois.


Anonymous said...

So I can pose the question...

Is it worth...$66.25 ?

Yes, I'm one of the cash strapped young'ns.

ANd not to knock Kotis, but I guy who gets success like that out of the gate with Urinetown, probably doesn't care too much about pricing.

But, the real question is, will any of you playwright bloggers (when the time comes) remember that part of the issue, or will you be so exhausted, older, and hungry for a paycheck, that the matter of ticket prices will be forgotten when the career kicks in ?

Again, I'm not tryong to slight anything, I'm just wonderinig if we're all asking ourselves the tough questions.

Playgoer said...

Not that it's much cheaper, but the discount code I site up top (provided to bloggers by the Roundabout) will get you a baclony seat for $40, and it's a pretty good seat. (Small theatre.)

As to whether it's even worth $40, all I can say is if you like the portrait I'm painting of Kotis in my review, then you'll probably have a good time. Then you have to ask how much you're willing to pay for a pretty good time in the theatre.

By the way, I don't count myself as a playwright-blogger. Not a playwright. So I'll defer to some of my blogger colleagues to weigh in on how success will spoil them.

Freeman said...

Hey Anonymous...

As a playwright/ hope would be that there is a new model that allows ticket prices to become lower and audiences to come more often. Larger crowds, for one, offset the need for higher ticket prices. Beyond that, though, is the need for subsidies to help offset costs.

Prices matter because they guide the audience to an extent. Kotis's play would be far better received by a younger, "hipper" audience...and their dollar just doesn't go to $55 dollar tickets for a two hour, four character, comedy that often.

Regardless, until it's impossible, I'd like to have my cake and eat it too: I'd like to get paid, but also have an audience. If we kill our audience with tickets that are two expensive, there will be no one left to check out whatever I'm bothering to write.

So, these ARE the hard questions. And they're hard to answer.

One possible solution was offered up by the Roundabout for 18-35 year old ticket buyers. Check it out on my blog.

Anonymous said...

What little I've read about Pig Farm to date didn't quite make sense to me. Once again Playgoer has shown me the light, this time with his evocation of Greg Kotis's background in Chicago's Off-Loop scene and the suggestion that Pig Farm is indeed an extended sophomoric sketch. As Playgoer says, that needn't be seen as a flaw; descriptions of that kind are too often used as condemnations. It's only a flaw if the play seems to think it's something else.

I might be persuaded to try to see it if it were being presented at the kind of place where you can pull up a stool and grab a beer. Alas, it's not. This may be a case where financial success for the playwright comes at the expense of his audience, i.e., the kind of audience that could best appreciate what he has written.

parabasis said...

Hey anonymous (are you the same anonymous from Mr. Excitment?),

I think that the play is worth the $40.00 that one can see it for with the discount. And this sentence:
"ANd not to knock Kotis, but I guy who gets success like that out of the gate with Urinetown, probably doesn't care too much about pricing. "

Is frankly, a cheap shot at someone whose work you don't know based on an uniformed assumption. In fact, if you even just read what was written on this blog about the show and Greg's background, you'd know it was uninformed.

Kotis didn't get "success like that out of the gate". URINETOWN was actually going to be his last show before quitting playwriting for a more lucrative profession (and one that would better enable him to support his two kids. He's been in this business a long time. It's that classic story of working years to become an overnight success.

And (just to make this clear) it's not like a success like Urinetown makes you a rich man. Making a living from art and making money doing it are very different things.

Also, cash-strapped young'n... playwrights have nothing to do with determining ticket prices. I suppose they could give up their fees and not get paid for their work... but they don't get paid a lot to begin with, and that money would probably just be zeroed out of the budget, rather than put into a ticket price discount. And even if that discount was applied across the board to every ticket, it would probably come out to about $0.03 per ticket as it got distributed.

And, Anonymous, let me just say that out of all of the bloggers who wrote about the night, only Matt talked frankly about ticket prices. You are right in that we all should have, and we should continue to address the issue in the future as we continue to do this. And hats off to Matt for showing some leadership on that front.

I must say (to zoom out for a moment) one of the things that this whole bloggers-night experiment has revealed is how keen people are to look for ways to knock other people's successes instead of building on them. Greg and I have both been accused, both times by anonymous bloggers, and neither time actually on my blog, of having been corrupted by the system. It's distressing, frankly. This kind of thinking is what makes it hard to ever build anything in our community, and it is a problem that the Left has as well. The conclution that has been lept to-- that somehow Greg is to blame for what the Roundabout is charging for his show, and is thus somehow out of touch with his roots/not caring about the little guy-- is an example of this.