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Pig Iron, unalloyed

The troupe's clown/gymnast actors get physical, and original, for the Live Arts premiere, "Welcome to Yuba City." Yee-haw!

Charlotte Ford (left), Sarah Sanford, Geoff Sobelle in "Welcome to Yuba City": "Little clown numbers threaded through with songs and dances, held together in this one mythic, lost America."
Charlotte Ford (left), Sarah Sanford, Geoff Sobelle in "Welcome to Yuba City": "Little clown numbers threaded through with songs and dances, held together in this one mythic, lost America."Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

These are busy days for Pig Iron Theatre Company's Quinn Bauriedel - as are most days for most members of Pig Iron, currently one of Philadelphia's most successful cultural exports.

Aside from sculpting its Live Arts Festival world premiere, Welcome to Yuba City - a collaboration with master clown Giovanni Fusetti and Philly native/New York-based composer extraordinaire Michael Friedman - everyone involved, from 10 official company members to the occasional guest, is busy creating side projects, collecting awards, or winning grants. But even by Pig Iron standards, Bauriedel is really, really busy.

He spent much of the summer traveling to New York to perform in spinoff group Rainpan 43's show Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines during its highly praised residence at Here Arts Center.

He's directing Yuba City, his first time since the company's 1998 The Tragedy of Joan of Arc.

He's preparing to step into what company member Dito Van Reigersberg calls the role of "Jedi Master" (official title: director) at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. It won't open its doors until 2011, but when it does, it will be a certificate-granting two-year program based here and dedicated to teaching Pig Iron's singular style of physical theater.

And as if this weren't quite enough responsibility for one man, his second child is due to be born right around Yuba City's opening next week, if not sooner. Like now. May the Force be with him.

Pig Iron's 14 years of performance defy easy categorization. Theater and dance, clowning and gymnastics, it's a blend of nontraditional narrative and staging plus whatever the individual members and their collaborators bring to the topic at hand. That topic can cover anything from cafeteria food (1997's Cafeteria), to an exploration of Swedish-American folk singer/labor organizer Joe Hill (2008's Sweet By-and-By). Pig Iron is nothing if not eclectic.

Here's how they work: Each company member is offered one project a year. Next, all members working on a particular project come together for what is called "the island," a workshop that Bauriedel says is "a chance to try out an idea or several ideas or meet a collaborator or work on a specific style and see what holds water." According to Van Reigersberg, the Pig Iron gestation cycle generally runs 2 to 21/2 years.

In May, during what Bauriedel calls "a two-week boot-camp clown workshop" for Yuba City, Fusetti had the cast - Sarah Sanford, James Sugg, Hinako Arao, Charlotte Ford, Geoff Sobelle, Alex Torra, and Van Reigersberg - tease out their inner clowns, using icons of the American West as inspiration.

Of this without-a-net process, Sanford says, "The challenge with Pig Iron is that you're always stepping into the unknown and you have to constantly renew your faith in that." (In her case, under Fusetti's tutelage she adopted a Russian accent, powdered whiteface, blood-red lipstick, and a huge, black shoulder-padded jacket to transform a vulture into a blackjack dealer.)

Fusetti, like most most Pig Iron members, is a graduate of Paris' prestigious International Theatre School Jacques LeCoq. If Ringling Bros.' Clown College is the clown world's Penn State, Ecole Jacques LeCoq is more like its artsier Swarthmore College - which seems appropriate, since Swarthmore is where the company's founding members met, and where Bauriedel currently teaches theater.

Composer Friedman brings his own (non-clown) perspective to the production. A Germantown Friends School and Harvard graduate, he's a member of the Civilians theater troupe, and wrote music and lyrics both for the theatrical version of the 2004 film Saved!, and for the emo-concert-musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson by Off-Broadway enfants terribles Les Freres Corbusier.

Bauriedel sees Pig Iron as "kindred spirits with the Civilians," since both troupes' members are "around the same age" (30s), there's been some cross-pollination (early Pig Iron member Suli Holum was once married to Civilian Trey Lyford, a frequent Pig Iron collaborator), and both troupes are committed to creating offbeat, original works.

For years Pig Iron had hoped to work with Friedman but couldn't find the right project. Bauriedel recalls their last attempt at collaboration, during rehearsals for Sweet By-and-By: "We brought a Swedish company," Teater Slava, "down to work with us, and they're big singers - but his stuff is so smart and contemporary and theirs was so folksy it wasn't the perfect mix."

Welcome to Yuba City is finally that mix. Less about the actual California town (pop. 62,083) than what Van Reigersberg calls "a Yuba City of the mind," the show takes place in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and employs a car and a pickup truck. Its cast portrays a carnival of characters who appear to have evolved from diner stools, cactus spikes, truck stops, and coyotes.

Actress Ford says bringing these motley fringe inhabitants to life is a dream come true, albeit one of those dreams that makes you wonder if it was maybe something you ate.

"Physical theater in general gives you the opportunity to create your own character, which is why I love it so much," she says. "I'd never get called in to audition for the part of the middle-aged blind cowgirl. That's not my look, or whatever, in regional theater. So in that way, Pig Iron is a chance to create roles for women as far as you can stretch it."

Bauriedel also rebels against theatrical strictures - in this case LeCoq's annoyance with "things on the margin." He says, "The metaphor here is the Joshua tree that lives in the desert and struggles to survive; it may only have one leaf, but it's a perfect leaf."

So what exactly goes on in Bauriedel's Joshua tree-studded Yuba City of the mind? "We're calling it a variety show, but that's probably wrong. It's composed of little clown numbers threaded through with songs and dances, held together in this one mythic, lost America."

That sounds like a lot to address in a performance, but so far, audiences haven't gone wrong by trusting Bauriedel's instincts. After all, if there's one thing he can do well, it's multitask.