When it comes to Pig Iron Theatre Company scenic designer Mimi Lien and director/co-founder Dan Rothenberg, “Superterranean” — Fringe Festival 2019’s first lofty production, starting September 5 — is not the first time that the pair have evoked or created new, undefinable worlds.
Ever since 2005’s “Love Unpunished,” Lien has come in and out of Pig Iron’s life due to her ability to dig below the skin of design.
“Superterranean,” however, is the first time such urban sprawl and industrialized infrastructure beats with its own heart, dreams its own dreams and thinks with its own brain — almost as if its intricate, Metropolis-like series of dams, refineries and treatment plants were living characters who created all of their own thoughts. With that, the ghost in the machine not only comes alive in a devised theater fashion: It’s the creator of its own actions and reactions.
“When we worked with Mimi on that first show, we were excavating feelings that were raw, still fresh from 9/11, and were looking to capture something personal, a moment in time before a political lens had lowered over everything,” Rothenberg said. “We wanted to talk out loud about hidden things, and Mimi got that.”
As Lien did with “Love Unpunished” and other work she has designed with Pig Iron, she offered options. “We might say that a play is set on a staircase, and what the staircase is will define everything that happens in the play,” Rothenberg noted. “Mimi got excited about the idea of staging defining the action. I did too, as that was something new with which actors had to contend.”
Lien added that the joy of working on a seemingly limited palate — a staircase — without a script, and crafting a dozen different opportunities, was “a bewildering variety of permutations that tickled my architectural fancy.”
Devised theater as open and emboldened was a fresh notion to Lien, and the liberated scenic designer ran with its free aesthetic. “I had never worked without a script, libretto or outline,” said an excitedly perplexed Lien. “That was a whole new world, new artistic territory, and changed the course of my work ever since.”
Such change, welcome comradery and the ease and ability to try out mock-ups of staging on a company of willing Pig Ironers are all part of what gave Lien the license to be the lead artist on, and author of, “Superterranean.”
“In each of our past collaborations, Mimi’s set has been a huge character, something the artists, in their interaction with, created the action,” Rothenberg said. “This time, for the first time, we started with nothing but Mimi’s fantasies.”
Lien’s architectural dreams and feelings concerning volumes in space and how they made her feel would guide all of where “Superterranean” went.
The scenic designer first approached the blank canvas of her infatuations in a cerebral fashion, thinking about parallel universes where people were impacted by their environment, and “the design of cities where said designs were aimed to shape peoples’ lives… a Utopia,” said Lien about an Ayn Rand-like existence that was overwrought and overthought. “Then Dan asked me about my obsessions, without over-thinking.”
The answer was tunnels that connect one subway line to another and buildings that have complexity, history and specificity, yet still hold mystery (“Why does a pipe go into a building in a really weird way?”). She took Pig Iron on a field trip to a wastewater treatment plant to get a feel for her fascinations, a place that Rothenberg called “a scattered field of pumps and valves.”“On that tour, we all had an eye-opening experience, watching all of the steps that the water goes through to be filtered,” Lien said. “The notion of these spaces not meant for human habitation holds intrigue aesthetically and in terms of scale. They’re all so vast.”
The relationship between the human body and such architecture, scale and permanence in comparison to our impermanence (“soft, flaccid flesh,” she said) drives the existential dilemma of “Superterranean.”
Rothenberg said that Lien brings joy and awe to the proceedings, while he brings fear and agoraphobia. “Both are present in the work,” Rothenberg said with a laugh.
How this all becomes theater is through “Superterranean’s” particular brand of minimalism — a Pig Iron signature — of small gestures, often inaudible dialogue and images. “I knew the set would take up a lot of space, literally and figuratively,” Rothenberg said. “I got very excited about the notions of soft bodies and hard construction, all of which remind me of my feelings of seeing the hallways in ‘The Shining'. That fills me with dread — that feeling that such a long space might rip me apart.”
While neither will describe the reality of “Superterranean’s” staging or spacing, both designer and director both believe that you should see nothing, “no specific action or drama, but rather, a fever dream of textures volume and soft bodies,” according to Rothenberg. “Puppetry that doesn’t look like puppetry. Acting that doesn’t look like acting, amid scenic pieces that should make you go ‘woah.’”
Do any of “Superterranean’s” motivations or actualizations have anything to do with a Philadelphia stuffed with millennials craving newer-and-newer condominiums crammed into the center of a city? “I certainly think living in a city with such population density and its incoming infrastructure — to live on top of each other — urbanism and its impact, was a thing,” Lien said.
Rothenberg, however, zoomed away from such gentrification and concentrated on the ancient desires of building one’s own structure, and the feeling that nothing can happen without these existing pipes, tunnels and water plants — as if we were under their command or control. “We’re trying to excavate that one moment where you drive by a refinery or a disposal plant, and linger on the feelings of awe and dread.”