GENTLEMEN VOLUNTEERS (Pig Iron): Psychology, trickery, live foley, everything you want

GENTLEMAN VOLUNTEERS marks a return to the beginning of Pig Iron's experimentation. Lindsay Browning Photography

GENTLEMAN VOLUNTEERS marks a return to the beginning of Pig Iron’s experimentation. Lindsay Browning Photography

You were puzzled by the critical excitement over Pay Up, which totally didn’t do what everyone said it did. You were disappointed by 99 Breakups, but so was everyone else. You didn’t see The Swamp Is On, because, well, no one saw The Swamp Is On. And you actually thought Twelfth Night was an excellently put-together production of Twelfth Night.

If this is all true, then you, like me, haven’t found much to be excited about re: Pig Iron lately. I fell in love with the company over Chekhov Lizardbrain in 2008: the outrageous the structure, the hallucinatory transitions, the stage presence of James Sugg, Dito van Reigersberg, Quinn Bauriedel, and Geoff Sobelle (wow!) all at once, the twisted psychological logic, and the beautiful writing.

What made Pig Iron performances so exciting was a company that trained together for a decade. Their shows were created collectively, and incredible experiments like Zero Cost House depended on the group’s chemistry and desire to experiment, and grow as artists. For one reason or another the company has for the most part broken up. What remains is still remarkable: a school with a huge influence on young Philadelphia performers, and some super high-profile productions. I heard I Promised Myself to Live Faster was okay.

If you haven’t heard, GENTLEMEN VOLUNTEERStheir first play ever as a teamis being pulled out of the time machine and produced at Christ Church Neighborhood House through Christmas.

GENTLEMEN VOLUNTEERS takes place during the first world war, and hinges on president Woodrow Wilson’s decision to “help France out.” Two young volunteers for the red crossRich (Bryant Martin), a hot-blooded American patriot, and Vincent (Scott Sheppard), an intellectualend up in a hospital in France for a short time before going to the front.

If this was just a love storyRich loves Mary (Lauren Ashley Carter), Vincent loves Francoise (Melissa Krodman)it wouldn’t be worth a penny, but the archetypes present in GENTLEMEN VOLUNTEERS speak lucidly about the human experience in a clash of cultures which changed the entire world (arguably) more than any other crisis in modern history. Boy-next-door Rich goes to war for glory and America and apple pie and never quite gets over the idealism; Vincent goes out of a need to help, but never stops griping about the governments which are running the war“all governments are the same,” he tells Francoise, and there’s nothing about a German that makes him any different from a Frenchman

To French citizens, who have been in a state of occupation for several years, and her French husband has already died in battle. She never forgives him for this comment, and he never understands why.

Scenes are performed without props or setnothing but lighting to denote spaceand performers sketch their physical surroundings with their fingers, etching everything from desks to eyeglasses to motor vehicles into our imagination. A live foley artist (Michael Castillejos) performs sound and music, often just outside of the stage light.

With GENTLEMAN VOLUNTEERS, we return to the very beginning of Pig Iron, and the piece displays a lot of the theatrical trickery and charm, psychological interest, and general fringe sentiment, which planted the roots of Pig Iron’s experimentation.
[Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St.]
December 10-27, 2015; pigiron.com.

 

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.