Posted by: strugglesome | September 14, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?: The cardboard origami world of Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Cankerblossom

You have to admire a theater company which epitomizes schizophrenia in the best possible sense. While some smaller companies whose work is constantly being created by the small group of people give you the distressing sense of continual deja-vu with each new piece, Pig Iron Theatre Company doesn’t just side-step that trap, it jumps right up over it. From naked, morbid, morgue-based Shakespeare (2007’s Isabella) to rock-cabarets set in mental institutions (2004’s James Joyce is Dead and so is Paris: The Lucia Joyce Cabaret) and everything else you can imagine that goes in between, Pig Iron seems to love to keep its audience on its toes and keep itself exploring new territory. Who would have guessed when watching their offering for last year’s Live Arts/Philadelphia Fringe festival, the wildly (and deservedly) popular Westward Ho! adventure Welcome to Yuba City, that the next time around they would be experiencing Cankerblossom,  a journey through a mythical cardboard world, a strained marriage and a musical odyssey all in one? Oh, you did, in the back? Well, pipe down, no one likes a know-it-all.

Let’s start with the title, shall we, and ask ourselves what exactly is a Cankerblossom? Well, it’s a Shakespearean insult for one, found  in everyone’s new favorite play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the confused Hermia calls Helena “Urban Dictionary defines a cankerblossom as slang for a herpes sore, among other equally unsavory things.  But it seems the Pig Iron Theatre Company and Dan Rothenberg, director and co-conceptual artist on this piece, have decided to eschew these various definitions and connotations in favor of a definition of their own creation. Their cankerblossom is a magical item, a doubt-machine, a cicada of sorts that only blooms every 22 years and has the smell of a thousand latrines. To burn the blossom is to relieve the world of doubt, and it is a heroic task indeed, if only you can find the elusive bloom before someone else does. This becomes the task of Nora and Miguel, played by Beth Nixon and Alex Torra, respectively, who start the show as a rather disharmonious pair, not fighting or tense, but just rather out of sync with each other.

Sitting in their pea-soup green living room, it’s only decoration a painting of a falcon, Torra and Nixon resemble nothing so much as hipsters all grown-up, her eager for adventure, him doubtful, both vaguely stylish and restless. So we aren’t particularly surprised when, upon receiving a cardboard baby that looks like it was pulled from a Shell Silverstein illustration, Nora is delighted while Miguel is a touch more skeptical. Nixon (who also created this cardboard kingdom, check out her work here)  is charming in her exuberant and immediate attachment to the flat child, forcing Torra’s Miguel to curl up with her and celebrate their new multi-textural family with a nap. When they wake up, however, the baby (and the falcon) are gone, and the frantic Nora and reluctant Miguel set off to re-claim their two-dimensional offspring and find themselves donning cardboard outfits and making their way through the mysterious “In Between” (gloriously cool design courtesy of Mimi Lien) as they try to rescue their child before it is lost to them forever in “the Flatts of Flat”. Assisting (and hindering) them in their quest are David Sweeny and Hirako Arao, who play, well, everyone else, from the devious Mr. Eye (Sweeny), the White Witch of the piece, to a cloud-filling Giant (Arao), and various other people, animals, gatekeepers, informative strangers, and cardboard crowds, in essence, the stuff of fairy tales. Sweeny is excellent, slipping in and out of characters (and cardboard costumes) like a particularly eccentric striptease artist and tunneling through the word-play and pun laden text with charm. Arao matches him in energy and enthusiasm, but can be difficult to understand through her accent (which, to be fair, is not a character choice, but her actual Japanese accent).  The adventures of these four actors are set against a musicscape designed by Nick Kourtides and composed by the hyper-talanted Rosie Langabeer, whose sweet and silky original tunes performed by Langabeer and the actors are in and of themselves a reason to see this show.

Because this is a fairy tale it ends, of course, in triumph, the couple re-united with their baby and each other, the cankerblossom burned, the day saved. But while Pig Iron has declared that this a a fairy tale for those aged 9 to 90, I would be interested to hear what an actual child thought about this piece. It seems there is a great divide between things we think to be childish or for children, and things that actually appeal to and capture the interest of children. For example, most of the kids I know are not that interested in Hayano Miyazaki’s critically acclaimed Spirited Away, preferring Totero or Howl’s Moving Castle instead. While some books and stories are able to cross age gaps (I loved The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe both when I thought it was a magical tale AND when I found out it was a Christian allegory, and I’ve yet to meet an enemy of the Harry Potter series, regardless of age) others get lost in, well, the in-between, and while they are too smart for children, they are a little too dumb for adults. In Cankerblossom Pig Iron has created a world that is visually incredible, cool, smart, and appealing as a magical place, but that doesn’t always come out in the story. For one thing there is so much going on, the baby, the cankerblossom, the villain, the relationship, the multiple worlds, it pulls the story in a plethora of directions and leaves the audience a little lost. When it finally comes back together at the end, unifying characters and story with conclusion, we aren’t quite sure how we got there.  At it’s best, this piece feels like Salmann Rushdie’s children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories; it gives us a glimpse into a world hovering just on the edge of our reality, somewhere we long to visit, somewhere adventures happen. And that’s a world that theater promises to give us, a world where things actually happen. It may be a world of cardboard, but if it’s good, it feels more real then brick.

The rest of Cankerblossom’s run appears to be completely sold out, but if you want to beg, borrow or steal a ticket you can go here. Or hang out outside the theater and see if you can’t seduce someone into giving up their seat for you. Your choice.


  1. woo-hoo! good writing about good theatre

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