2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: A Period of Animate Existence by Pig Iron Theatre Company (DC Metro Theater Arts)

September 23, 2017

By Walter Bilderback

"If you open the dictionary and look up the word ‘life,’ one entry reads: ‘a period of animate existence.’"

Composer Troy Herion gives this explanation for the title of Pig Iron Theatre Company’s newest work. A Period of Animate Existence is the largest project Pig Iron has ever taken on: it has 87 performers, including the Grammy-nominated choir The Crossing, instrumental ensemble Contemporaneous, an elder choir and a children’s choir. Its big themes are Life and Extinction: the lead creators – Composer Herion, Set Designer Mimi Lien, and Director Dan Rothenberg – were inspired by a range of contemporary writers who have addressed the concepts of the Anthropocene and the Sixth Extinction.

This is the most impressive work I’ve seen from Pig Iron, and you should grab a ticket if you can.

It is a big piece, wrestling with big ideas. It is also full of beauty, in sound, image and movement, and frequently moving. Lien has been Pig Iron’s scenic designer for years, and this year won a Tony for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Her work here (beautifully abetted by lighting designer Tyler Micoleau) is the best I’ve seen from her. Rothenberg similarly takes advantage of the scale he’s been allowed, particularly in the pageant of Movement Four. Herion’s music is continually engrossing, exciting, and challenging: he finds a different musical vocabulary for each of the movements, now grand and cosmic, now colloquial, now “composed static” (Movement Three).

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geologic era in which we are now living, where (quoting theorist Timothy Morton in the playbill) “human activity has become a geophysical force on a planetary scale.” The word comes from anthropo (“man”) and cene (“new”), and the era succeeds the Holocene, the unusually mild 12,000 year period since the last Ice Age, during which almost everything we conceive as “human civilization” arose. The Earth has seen five great extinction events in its history. Most biological scientists believe we are on the verge, or in the midst of a sixth extinction event, which may be one of the defining features of the Anthropocene, since it too is a result of human actions.

There are many ways of trying to wrestle with the Anthropocene, intellectually and artistically. A Period’s general focus is from a “zoomed-out perspective,” as Herion says in an interview, and is strongest when it opens itself to the uncanny (a phrase used by Lien), which includes “emotions that I don’t have a name for” (Rothenberg). It is structured in five movements, intentionally imitating the 19th century symphony form.

Movement One established the “zoomed-out,” uncanny perspective. Monumental chords emerge out of darkness. Projections mention the five great extinctions, drawing particular attention to the fifth, which killed off the dinosaurs, and the third, which killed 96 percent of all varieties of life on earth. What seems to be a black sun appears: it later turns out to be a giant cone which rotates. The cone appears and disappears inside a frame that seems to move forward and back, irising in and out, within a black vacuum. Lights finally rise a little to reveal the ensemble Contemporaneous playing onstage, with silvery serpentine forms writhing next to them. Designer Lien quotes Timothy Morton in her program notes. Morton is best-known for championing the idea of hyperobjects – objects and concepts (like climate change) that are too large for the mind to really grasp. The music, set, and lighting give Morton’s idea an unsettling concreteness.

Movement Two is a song, “Humans,” with lyrics by Herion, Rothenberg, and co-librettist Kate Tarker, sung by singer/cellist Daniel de Jesús with a chorus of Philadelphians moving around him. (Most are amateurs recruited for the project, but it includes members of The Crossing and some theater professionals, including Pig Iron co-founder Dito van Reigensberg.) It’s a lovely melody, and some of the lyrics leap out: “Something always was/Something always will be/Let that set you free,” or the final “A single cell still dividing all of us each one of us.”

Movement Three returns to the uncanny: a solitary food truck in an empty space against a background of static. The truck’s electronic sign continues to advertise its long-gone wares, along with philosophical musings from an undefined intelligence.

Movement Four seems to be the longest movement. Introduced by a young girl played by Margalit Eisenstein, it’s general form is a pageant performed by an elder choir and a children’s choir. Among its
highpoints are a conversation between the girl and her Grandmother (Nancy Boykin), who is both The First Grandmother and The Last Grandmother, and a running skirmish between the girl and a young boy (Simon Kiley), who has a very pessimistic outlook on the future. The music here is light and superficially conventional, performed in an onstage bandshell.

The final movement returns to the “zoomed-out” and uncanny. Projections remind us of the trilobites, early arthropods who were the most successful animals on earth for 270 million years, surviving the first two great extinctions, only to perish in the third. Here, Herion’s music is performed by The Crossing, Philadelphia’s superb vocal choir. Dressed by costume designer Loren Shaw as trilobites, they sing a beautifully intricate arrangement. In front of them, members of Drexel University’s wrestling team pair off in three circles, struggling against each other until only one wrestler is left, beaten and exhausted, crawling toward the center as lights go out. The metaphorical meaning of the wrestling was either too complex or too simplistic for me, but the music provided an overpowering ending for the piece.

A Period is most successful in its odd-numbered movements, when it maintains its “zoomed out,” uncanny scale. It is here I also feel most aware of Rothenberg’s “emotions that I don’t have a name for.” When A Period moves to a more human scale, it reveals a challenge of the Anthropocene as a concept for living in the world, rather than a geophysical demarcation. Just who is included in the “anthropo” of Anthropocene? All humans? Equally? The Artist’s Statement for A Period says “We find ourselves in a perilous time.”

A Period’s Anthropocene is heavily influenced by James Lovelock, Yuval Noah Harari, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Timothy Morton (along with a seasoning of Henri Bergson’s élan vital); a different Anthopocene (perhaps with a different name) and a different extinction story, emerges in the writing, say, of Jason W. Moore, Rob Nixon, Ashley Dawson, McKenzie Wark, Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, or Donna Haraway. The first group, to simplify, tends toward a notion of “universal human nature;” the second, generally speaking, sees our “perilous time” as a result of choices made by certain people, in certain societies, with certain political and economic goals, who have always faced degrees of resistance in pursuing those goals. One is a philosophical perspective; the other is political. Both are important for trying to come to terms with the crisis confronting all of humanity.

I would hope that there is a way to tour this piece, but viewing it in the wake of multiple Category 5 hurricanes in the Caribbean as well as catastrophic flooding in South Asia and West Africa, it’s hard to ignore that A Period of Animate Existence, for all its artistic accomplishment, is more a work of art for people who go to the theater in places like Philadelphia, where the philosophical can take precedence in our minds, than it is for an audience in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Micronesia, or Cancer Alley in Louisiana, where existence is an immediate question. Are there artists of equal talent and vision (and founders/presenters with equally deep pockets) to create works that address those societies’ period of animate existence?

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.

A Period of Animate Existence plays from through September 24, 2017 and is presented by Pig Iron Theatre Company, performing at the Zellerbach Theatre at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.