The latest by Pig Iron Theatre Company, Philly’s physical and experimental theater brain trust, is titled A Hard Time, and like much of the company’s work, it is ambitious, goes too far completely on purpose, and has moments of brilliance.
This latest installment of the FringeArts series titled High Pressure Fire Service asks: What is funny? Why do we laugh at the things we laugh at? When women tell jokes, why do some of us, men and women alike, resist? When men tell jokes, why is there so much submerged violence against women?
If the show seems unready, hey, that’s physical theater; go in that spirit. As I write, A Hard Time is overflowing with worthy ideas, some that work better (a great skit about guys on a fishing holiday), and some that work less well (especially in transitions, or a confusing attempt to transform the theater into a dance space). All the dressing and undressing on stage render us acutely aware of the female body as battleground.
Our hosts are three very accomplished performing artists: Jennifer Kidwell (of Underground Railroad Game), Jess Conda (Broads at 1812 Productions), and Mel Krodman (The Sincerity Project with Team Sunshine Performance Corp.). These three are uncannily good at inhabiting male characters. Conda excels at the squat, gruff, hair-slicked-back police officer or, say, a businessman on a fishing holiday. Krodman does a great paranoid princess and an even better Ben Turpin spin-off.
Kidwell was the standout the night I was there, beginning the play as an academic giving a dry lecture on laughter, ending with “Ha. Ha. Ha,” slowly and dead-eyed, accelerating until the audience joined in. A great point: Much of laughter is physical reaction, irreducible and untranslatable.
Kidwell excels again as a crusty baseball coach telling of a woman rounding the bases, heading for home, all while having her period. All of the language can be taken in several ways, many of them obscene. Asking why things are funny brings us to why we consider certain things obscene.
We get one-liners — “So what if I don’t know the meaning of the word Armageddon? It’s not the end of the world.” (Well told by Conda.) Krodman interrogates a guy from the audience — on my night, an editor at a website whom Krodman hilariously grilled about his deep-seated frustrations at work. In a slit between pink curtains, Conda and Kidwell perform a surreal conversation — “A paroxysm of vengeance might feel nice this time of year” — with selected body parts.
“We have designed a system in which we have learned to hate ourselves,” we hear from Kidwell, “and learned to hate each other.” If this seems far from humor, maybe we need to go there to understand why we laugh, why we withhold laughter, and what we really are laughing about.
Worthy themes, and at some future point, A Hard Time will find its best rhythm and focus.