Fringe Festival: Welcome to Yuba City

Posted: September 9, 2009 in Braak, poetics, reviews, so very very old, theater
Tags: , , ,

If you work in the Philadelphia theater scene, you’ve heard of Pig Iron theater.  They are famous, some kind of famous physical actors who all trained in Le Coq, or something, and they’re always doing outlandish shows like what if Chekhov’s plays were also his subconscious, or what if we did Measure for Measure, but everyone was naked and dead.  For this they are hailed as far away as New York City as brilliant experimentalists and they get all kinds of grants.

I had never seen a Pig Iron play, even though I knew I ought to, and I figured that Welcome to Yuba City, their world premiere piece in the Fringe, would be a good opportunity to see what these crazy cats are about.

Now, look.  I live in terror of being like The Olds.  I hate old people, and I hope I never become old people.  And because of this, I’m constantly questioning myself.  “Myself,” I say to myself, “Would I be the person who, when Jean Cocteau premiered Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, sits in the audience and grumbles about plot and structure and murr murr murr, where’s my soup?”  I’m afraid to be that guy, and so I extend a lot of leeway to experimental theater.  Maybe I’m just not smart enough, you know?  Or not OPEN-MINDED enough.

But really, what the hell, man.  I don’t know what I just saw.  I saw something.  I know I saw something, because it cost me twenty-five dollars and lasted at least an hour and a half.  There were people walking around with their butts stuck out, and they had silly voices.  Some guys came in the window.  There were aliens.  The set looked very nice.


I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t like nonsense, because I do.  I mean, I get when you want to make a play that’s weird, and whose disparate elements come together or don’t come together in a way that does or doesn’t mean something.  I’m fine with all of those combinations.  Remember in The Big Lebowski?  How a whole bunch of stuff happens, but nothing really signifies?  That’s great, I like that movie.  The same with Repo Man. Yuba City resembles both of these from a very great distance, except its lack of anything that resembles structure is so pervasive that there’s no particular interest in the fact that nothing seems to make any difference.  Yeah nothing signifies.  So what?  Nothing ever seemed like it was going to signify.

There’s a laughing woman who buries gold bars behind the counter.  Could she have been replaced by an old fat guy polishing his ham radio?  Easily!  What about those Italian bikers?  Could we have switched them out for 19th century French-Canadian fur trappers without changing the play at all?  No problem!

The whole thing seemed like an exercise in which a director said, “Walk in a funny way–preferably with your butt sticking out.  Good!  Now pick an impenetrably thick caricature of an accent!  Okay, just do that for a while, we’ll throw some songs in, put you in silly costumes, and put a car on the stage.  HOORAY EXPERIMENTAL!”

And it’s not like there wasn’t opportunity for story there.  There’s some neat stuff about a guy looking for aliens and being chased by Men in Black, and a waitress that keeps making fun of him.  That was pretty great–there was a whole play in that!  He doesn’t show up until about halfway through, though, and doesn’t actually have much that’s interesting to say–just some goofy crap about emotional revolutions that I can’t tell whether or not I’m supposed to take seriously.  The point, though, is that fifteen minutes worth of work anchoring the piece around this would have made the nonsense actually more nonsensical.  The lack of signification would have been relevant, as opposed to simply being a lack of signification.  As it stands, it’s just a showcase for some zany physical work.

The guys are definitely good at the physical work, though, I’ll give them that.  They do these quick changes, character stuff, one guy does a handspring–they’re all good at that.  It’s moderately impressive for a few minutes, but it’s not like it keeps getting more impressive.  Like at the circus.  You know how, at the circus, they build up to the woman that does backflips off the elephants?  They keep establishing and then exceeding expectations to maintain your interest.

I don’t know.  I don’t think the show was bad, just kind of dumb.  And I’m afraid of what this means for me.  I’m afraid it means I’m some kind of crotchety jerk who doesn’t get the joke.  Like, look at this.  This was the director’s note in the program, it’s from Quinn Bauriedel:

A tall tale is a lot like a mirage.  And a mirage is a lot like life.  And life, at times, is not unlike a tall tale.

The impulse for this piece came from examining the thin membrane between truth and fiction.  We see the mirage, but we can’t touch it.  It teases us, it sings to us, but when we chase it it escapes us.  A diner on the edge of the desert is the perfect setting to explore our common mythology, the tall tales that live in our collective imagination.  The desert terrain is a rich backdrop to explore the truths and lies of American individualism.  Endless space.  The struggle to survive.  A mystery in the air.  Desert justice.  Cosmic alignment.  Cowboy philosophy.  A clown is on the horizon, too, trying desperately to bring the west’s myths to life with mustaches, glasses, and an endless supply of coffee.

We welcome you to that special place where the song is so sad it is funny, the characer so crazy she is wise, the lie so preposterous it is true.

I hope you brought your bi-focals; WELCOME TO YUBA CITY should be enjoyed both near and far away.

First of all, WHAT FUCKING TALL TALE?  What?

Second of all, look at that and tell me what you think.  Is it supposed to be a joke?  Am I an idiot for taking it seriously?  Honestly, I’d have had a hundred percent more respect for the guys if the director’s note had just been, “Yeah, here’s a bunch of stupid shit we thought up, strung together by a loose approximation of a premise.  Hope you like the set!”  Have I been had?  Is that what this note is supposed to mean?

Here I want to try an experiment.  Read this and tell me if it makes any LESS sense:

A [Ford Pinto] is a lot like a [candy apple].  And a [candy apple] is a lot like life.  And life, at times, is not unlike a [Ford Pinto].

The impulse for this piece came from examining the [thick syrup drizzled on] truth and fiction.  We see the [candy apple], but we can’t touch it.  It teases us, it sings to us, but when we chase it it escapes us.  A [caddyshack] on the edge of [an active volcano] is the perfect setting to explore our common mythology, the [Ford Pintos] that live in our collective imagination.  The [volcanic] terrain is a rich backdrop to explore the truths and lies of [the Hegelian Dialectic]. [A big pit].  The struggle to survive.  A mystery in the air. [Sulfurous fumes.]  Cosmic alignment.  [German] philosophy.  [J. Edgar Hoover] is on the horizon, too, trying desperately to bring the [island of Vanuatu]’s myths to life with mustaches, glasses, and an endless supply of [delicious ham].

We welcome you to that special place where the song is so sad it is funny, the characer so crazy she is wise, the [sun so hot I froze to death, Susannah don’t you cry.]

I hope you brought your [large aquariums]; WELCOME TO YUBA CITY should be enjoyed [with your head completely submerged in water].

Anyway, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Everyone in the audience was laughing away.  73% of the insta-poll phone guys said that the play was “Amazing,” on a scale of 1 to Amazing.  I felt like I was at a theater on Mars.

  1. Amanda says:

    This is exactly how I felt about HYSTERIA at the Wilma. Like, right down to the very examples you used- they could fit either show!

    I wish you’d go see EVERYMAN…Just to see what you think about it….

  2. braak says:

    I had other, though related, problems with Hysteria.

    But I got back here, and the first thing I get in my e-mail is a note on the theater alliance listserv, from a guy talking about how great Yuba City is, and how hilarious it was, and how he didn’t want to call it a play because it was really an EXPERIENCE.

    Which is, of course, amazingly stupid. Everything is an experience. A play is an experience. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO NOT EXPERIENCE THE THINGS YOU ARE EXPERIENCING.

    Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with me?

    Regarding Everyman: I’m disinclined to trust the work of anyone who, when describing their work, uses the words “avant-garde” in quotes. What the hell does that mean? You’re not REALLY avant-garde? What?

  3. richie says:

    It sounds like your problem is that you do not enjoy douchery.

    I never found ZANY! to be a very difficult art form to achieve. I think that many people don’t have the balls to think in ZANY! ways themselves, so when they see ZANY! they are completely overcome.

  4. richie says:

    So yeah, authors, do me a favor and at least try to do something to make my mind work. Push the boundaries of something real so that I can think about things in my life slightly differently. Don’t just show me some off-the-wall batshit that makes no sense and is only funny because it’s off-the-wall. Unless you include some really funny one-liners — I might fall for that.

  5. Amanda says:

    @Braak: Don’t let this go to your head but SOMETIMES you are truly fantastic.

    RE: Everyman and the quotation marks- I told him not to do that.
    Yes, I am a member of their theatre troupe, but not in this particular production…

  6. braak says:

    @richie: I don’t know, though. I mean, I enjoy watching the Cirque de Soleil–in fact, the biggest problem I have with the Cirque is all that stuff where they try and put a storyline in it. Something about a child learning the power of their dreams, or something, who cares? Let me see some guys doing backflips, you know?

    And I can be impressed by a good clown; I love a good clown. The routine in Hysteria, for example, with Harpo Marx was great (despite being about five minutes too long), and I once saw a guy do a mime routine with a balloon that was amazing.

    I think the real problems here are twofold: on the one hand, they keep behaving as though this is something more than just zany stuff that guys are doing. And on the other hand, they’re good, but they aren’t that good. With one or two exceptions, it’s not like the piece is made up of really good clown routines: it’s just weird character work.

  7. braak says:

    @Amanda: CCI is Justin Poole, right? Justin’s an okay cat. He still shouldn’t have put “avant-garde” in quotation marks.

  8. Amanda says:

    @Braak: Darling, the Harpo Marx routine was from SCHMUCKS, not HYSTERIA. Case in point: there is no redeeming value to HYSTERIA, whatsoever.

    And yes, Justin Poole (ccTi) IS an okay cat. Again, fabulous phrasing, mon cher.

  9. braak says:

    Yes, that’s right, it was from Schmucks. I get them mixed up, because they were both about two historical figures meeting in unlikely circumstances, and I was thoroughly disappointed in both of them.

  10. richie says:

    There can certainly be performance without storytelling, and you’re dead on, to make it work the performers have to be very good at what they do. There are genres of music that I cannot stand but I would be awed to have the opportunity to watch some of the best in the field perfom.

    When acting, your job is to convince the audience that you are a character. A good character has a good story to tell. I don’t see how one can call the kind of random ZANYfest you referred to a talented performance without some thread of a story. You didn’t sound particularly moved!

  11. Amanda says:

    Haha, I was thoroughly disappointed in both of them too! But HYSTERIA also made me angry, whereas SCHMUCKS just made me sad.
    But it reeeeally says something about the “writing” when an audience can’t even tell two plays apart! And did you also see SCORCHED? I thought that one was a hot mess as well. IMO it started out okay, but completely fell apart in Act Two.

  12. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Although I do find a Ford Pinto to be very similar to a candy apple—both are overripe, sweet and would be dripping sticky material, if not for a hardened crust of bonding material sealing it all away–I get your frustration, Braak. Characters can be loosely connected; however, too vague and unfleshed a connection and you have people that are not necessarily “acting”. They are modeling art pieces; being vessels, not doing a perspective. It’s a puppetmaster–maybe narcissistic–kind of attitude on the part of the writer or director, where one is above any collaboration; “I, the director and master, will show you these things and allow you to reflect on them. I will not explain why I have chosen them through any kind of consistent storyline. Yes, you could reflect on disjointed symbols and acrobatics without my assistance, but I want you to spend the next hour and a half imagining what I was thinking, my darling captives.” The difference between character and costume is an understanding between performers and audience that defines the symbols being shown on the exterior. You can’t have both; blasting the confines of semantics and structure, yet picking and choosing what you want to label and when you want to organize ideas–looping in and out of concept.

    But some viewers dig this. They like to be alone with their thoughts in a sea of people; using the actors as abstract prompts to ponder, in the same disconnected way they’d observe the masses outside of a theater setting. Structured stories–those things that connect us through our humanity–are dirty and organic. These sort of performances are the great dividers of viewers. What do you see live theater for? Some people want something they can bring home, roll around in the head for a while and cuddle; others want an experience that relieves them of their humanity for a a short time; chilly, beautiful things you use, then leave behind. Any abstract thing can “say” something about our “experience”—but do you really want to sit on a crushed-iron bench with steel spokes, any longer than you have to? And are you going to integrate that art, for the long term, into your life?

    I’ve had similar conversations with filmies about Fellini:

    “Oh–but he’s the master of experience . His stuff is so dream-like…” they’d say. Indeed, but some dreams you wish to forget. Plus, Kurosawa did it better and seemed to value the humanity of his players while doing it.

  13. richie says:

    shit VIP why you gotta say things so much prettier than me?

  14. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …but really, I’m wasn’t justified in commenting. I haven’t seen it, afterall.

  15. V.I.P. Referee says:

    <I wasn’t…

  16. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Yes–pretty, meaningless things! Words of ice and steel—steel supporting a poorly designed structure! I’d prefer the ability to say valuable things in an ugly way ;).

  17. Carl says:

    If nothing else, this dialogue proves that the piece has succeeded in being provocative– look how provoked you are, Chris. For my money, that’s not reason enough to make or experience art, but I seem to be alone in that. Provocation alone has become some kind of end unto itself in the theatre. Give me JUST evocation over JUST provocation any day of the week.

    Also I should mention that the only Pig-Iron production that I ever saw was called a piece called— what was it— shuteye, I think, back in 2001. And it fucking rocked my pants off.

  18. braak says:

    @ Carl: I fucking hate people that think theater just needs to be provocative. Remember when the Dadaists used to do provocations, and they would sell all the seats in the theater twice, so that the audience would have to fight over them? Or they would paint the chair before everyone sat down, so everyone would get paint on them? OH LOOK HOW MUCH YOU’RE COMPLAINING ABOUT IT! WE MUST HAVE SUCCEEDED IN OUR GOAL!


    And I don’t know what to tell you. This was my first Pig Iron show, and I think it was really stupid. Maybe they’ve done good work before? Maybe they’ll do good work in the future? Who can say?

  19. Moff says:

    I dunno. I think when richie says “ZANY,” he means something different from Cirque du Soleil. “Zany” to me carries with it a connotation of bizarreness that is so much for the sake of bizarreness as to be meaninglessly flimsy. I think a lot of people want their zaniness to mean something, but believe that just by virtue of the fact that they’re doing something WEIRD, they’re making meaning. Like, it’s new or different, and therefore it must matter.

    I’m pretty sure I would have had exactly the same reaction to the show as you, Chris. I guess I can buy that some people genuinely enjoy just watching weird shit that doesn’t go anywhere, but I also think there are people who decide to like weird things because if it’s weird enough, you can tell yourself you’re very intelligent and open-minded for liking it. (And it’s hard to be criticized for, because the critic runs the risk of being accused of not understanding it.)

    I don’t know. I’m suspicious of experimental artists because they can always fall back on “Well, you just don’t get it,” and because while good weird art is hard to do, when it comes to bad weird art, it doesn’t seem like it would be that tough for someone to write down a bunch of random shit and then perform it. The great thing about the archplot and other archetypal, traditional forms is that you can tell if someone knows what they’re doing when they work in those.

  20. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    I feel like there’s a lot of art whose only interest is in pushing the outer edges of what it means to be art. Sometimes arts who do that hit a sweet spot where they merge that kind of experimental endeavor with a more accessible and relevant narrative, and they create an applicable masterpiece. But you almost feel like they did it by accident. In all other cases, the art is only interesting to people who are so thoroughly immersed in the medium that they can see precisely which edges are being pushed upon and broken through and reformed, and of course the only person who will understand it 100% is the actual creator. You might say this is always the case, but it is not. Art that genuinely reaches people often reaches far past the creator’s original intention. But with the real experimental stuff the only people that like it are 1) people involved in the same kind of work (or, more often, critics of said work, who spent a lot of time looking at different examples of the media and analyzing them), and 2) people who just like watching zany people with their butts sticking out, and who are highly charged by the idea that what they are watching is pushing the edges, even if they can’t quite understand how or why. I suspect most of the people laughing in your audience were among the latter group. I don’t care for that kind of art myself, and although I do think the art and the critical buzz around it is self-indulgent and aloof, I do think it’s rather narcissistic to think everyone who likes it and produces it is just faking it (which you, Braak, didn’t, you admitted you might just not get it).

  21. braak says:

    I’m going to be honest, Jesse: I can admit that maybe I don’t get it in theory, but I’m not sure I actually believe that I just don’t get it.

    Well, obviously I don’t get something. But you know me: the idea that I might be wrong and the idea that everyone else is a huge idiot have equal weight in my estimation.

  22. richie says:

    My contempt for this kind of art is almost never for the artist, it’s for Jesse’s people “who are highly charged by the idea that what they are watching is pushing the edges, even if they can’t quite understand how or why.” I look around and see other people loving something that isn’t resonating with me at all and I’m torn about whether or not I’m a snob or these people truly are that simple (as in all things, probably some of both).

    The biggest problem is the positive feedback going back to the artist. I applaud that artists try different shit to see what sticks using the process of natural selection. But as an audience we do everyone a disservice by artificially selecting anything that is different for survival. Latch on to the experiments that work, learn from the ones that don’t. Create movement in a positive direction. Don’t just sprawl out into the ZANY ALL THE TIME.

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