Posted by: strugglesome | May 19, 2010

Doing the Robot: Observations On Pig Iron Theater Company’s Robot Etudes

When you think about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, do you think about engineering students, pet robots, jumpsuits and James Sugg doing his very best Charlie Chaplin impression as he falls madly in love with a feather duster? No? Well, apparently you should be.

I should back up for those reading who are still stuck on their antiquated ideas about lovers and fairies and Ass’ heads and what have you, and explain. Pig Iron Theater Company, darling of the Philadelphia arts scene, masters of turning the world on its head and saying the things you want to say two weeks before you can think to say them, has a new obsession, Shakespeare’s most madcap comedy romp through the woods of Ancient Athens. No, it’s not King John, smart ass, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play within the play, the four tiered layer cake often eaten in a High School English class. And while Harold Bloom may have announced to my Shakespeare class in his grave and thickly New-York accented tones that this particular play was hardly worth his time, it seems that Pig Iron is planning on respectfully disagreeing. According to co-artistic director Dan Rothenburg’s welcome speech to the audience of Robot Etudes, a series of short performance pieces performed this past Saturday at the Annenburg’s Harold Prince Theater, Pig Iron is going to be contemplating and creating a series of works based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for at least the next few years. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bloom. (On second thought, better that he doesn’t. The man is getting on in years.)

As Rothenberg wrapped up his speech and urged us to silence our personal communication devices and leave the beeping to the action on the stage, my eyes were drawn to the set itself. A small structure had been built stage right, its haphazard assembly giving the space a touch of trailer park chic. Slipcovers were thrown off to reveal claw-like structures of metal and electrical wire, with a spiky metallic flower lurking in the background, a garden of robots, as Rothenberg described it, a forest of machines. What follows for the next 35 minutes or so is a series of etudes, or short half-sketched scenes in which Pig Iron members Alex Torra, Dito Van Reigersberg, Sarah Sanford and James Sugg, joined by artistic collaborators Corinna Burns (whose last Pig Iron project had her stumbling around a warehouse as the naked corpse of a nun) and Jebney Lewis wander around this mechanized landscape in matching blue jumpsuits, fiddling with machines, tinkering, joining, weaving around. More than the lovers, the nobles or the fairies, this group of actors resembles nothing so much as Shakespeare’s mechanicals, not only in the sense of punning, but in the sense that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself the mechanicals who use the woods for the most normal practical reason, that is, to practice a play. Sound familiar?

Forests in Shakespeare are often represent freedom, a wild space divorced from conventional rules and regulations. In As You Like It the forest of Arden is almost as significant as any of the characters themselves, it represents exile but also liberation, a space in which roles can be reversed, genders can be confused and lovers can be wanton. The magical forest space of The Tempest is similarly significant, a prison for Prospero but a wild wild West for the shipwrecked crew. Forests aren’t all fun and games and happy endings, however, there is a danger in the wilderness, a disturbing aspect best represented in the moving forest of Macbeth, the Baba Yaga of Shakespearean moments. But the challenge is, as Rothenberg himself described it, how do you create a forest, which by its definition is a wild organic space, in a completely artificial environment? By its nature theater is an artificial space, a world of the created, rather than the naturally occurring. How do you bring the forest inside, if the very purpose of the forest is that it is outside, beyond, other?

Well, one solution, as Pig Iron has so artfully begun to explore, is the flip the script. In a landscape dominated by the mechanical, humanity is the shock. If the forest is an environment of inorganic, then the natural factor becomes the people within it. There is a real thrill in the juxtaposition of images like Sanford as part of a winged machine being clumsily operated by Sugg and Torra,  or Van Reigersberg grinning with delight as he slips a glowing plastic star into his jumpsuit like a futuristic Huckleberry Finn with a pie, or perhaps the most affecting image, Burns asleep in the center of this mechanical world at the very start of the piece, a Sleeping Beauty in a castle made of robots.

I couldn’t say where Pig Iron and their collaborators will be taking this Metropolis like study next, but I can tell you, it’s going to be worth watching. Stay tuned for updates, after all, we are approaching summer, maybe that will be the aspect addressed next.



  1. Thank you for your sultry, sauntering prose, of fair Leah! I really like being described as HUCK FINN WITH A PIE!

    No but seriously, we often bemoan the lack of serious, thoughtful, INTELLIGENT criticism in the Philly area, and if you can reverse that trend and give people something meaty to chew on, good on you. Plus you wrote about Martha! I will show it to her…right now she’s in her dressing gown, loading her cigarette holder and feeling sorry for herself…



  2. […] that’s two down (counting the Robot Etudes), and two to go. I’m already feeling a little winded. This isn’t to say I don’t […]

  3. […] Pig Iron Theater Company noted, an issue with this particular play often lies in creating the forest setting. In this case, the woods becomes a sort of mild rave with scantly hung lit cords hanging from the […]

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