nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
June 29, 2006
With a mix of broad, over-the-top comedy and rants against government by everyday characters (whose portrayals leave them not much more sympathetic than their targets), Greg Kotis's Pig Farm is certainly a close relative of Urinetown, the work that put him and director John Rando on the map. While Urinetown featured a larger ensemble and high-spirited musical numbers, this follow-up manages to keep much of the spirit, many of the themes, and all of the absurdity that made its sibling so popular. There is undeniable energy generated by these two exciting theatre artists—matched blow-for-blow by their exceptional cast—and Pig Farm's inanity is a delight, even without the wink-nudge of musical theater convention to give the audience permission to laugh big and loud. (They do anyway.) Pig Farm is an oft-hilarious piece that tells a decidedly rural tale in a way that's comprehensible, allegorical, and enjoyable for its urban audience.
Farmer Tom (John Ellison Conlee) and his homemaking wife Tina (Katie Finneran) live a lifestyle that is by turns utterly simple and totally overwhelming. She longs for a child, but Tom is focused on—nay, obsessed by—the singular task of running his pig farm in a way that is profitable but also keeps him within (or at least near) the boundaries set by the Environmental Protection Agency. He's assisted in his work—today, it's counting the pigs—by Tim (Logan Marshall-Green), a teenage hired hand rescued from the clutches of Juvie Hall via a work-release program. (The way the characters bandy about the name "Juvie Hall," incidentally, is one of the early hints that this seeming slice of Americana will explode in a tone of delirious mockery later on.) Tim desperately wants to be seen as a man instead of a boy, and he lusts after Tina with a klutzy but intense hunger. She finds his roguishness appealing in a way that reminds her of a young Tom, and after downing a bottle of whiskey, they end up in each other's arms, eventually having sex by her basement laundry machine (near which Tom would never go).
If it sounds melodramatic, well, that's because it is—to a degree. Don't be turned off by the subject matter—even though it's the center of the play, it quickly becomes peripheral to the wit of language, staging, and performance that pervades Pig Farm. Early suggestions of the play's inevitably exaggerated comic tone are cemented with the arrival of EPA agent Teddy (Denis O'Hare), who has come to count the pigs and verify Tom and Tina's compliance with the law, no matter who or what gets in his way. "The government's way is the people's way," he tells Tina, "and the people must have their way." Teddy makes clear author Kotis's simultaneous affection/contempt for the government and its citizens; she tells him, "But I am the people," and he responds, "Not all of them, you're not." Teddy flaunts his gun (he claims there've been incidents in the past that necessitate EPA agents carrying firearms), flirts with Tina, and eventually reveals his own desire for the life of a farmer, making a cash offer to Tom and Tina for their property.
By the time Teddy offers to "buy the farm," it's clear that Kotis and Rando have a way over-the-top ending in mind for their characters. Verbal hints aside, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt turns an outdoor hog pit into an excuse for bathing the set in flames of hell, and Gregory Gale's appropriately dumpy costumes are destroyed in a hail of bullet holes and spurting fake blood.
The worse the terrific costumes and perfect set (by Scott Pask) look, the better the actors come off. All four shine in roles that provide them with opportunities for enacting a wide range: from small, limited characterizations to broad physical comedy bordering on camp. Marshall-Green, known to be a gifted dramatic actor, is equally comfortable with pratfalls and one-liners. O'Hare and Conlee balance each other perfectly, with outrageous idiocy and subdued idiocy, respectively. But all three men are outshined by the brilliant Finneran, whose ability to read her fellow actors—and her audience—from moment to moment is dazzling. If it's possible to treat extreme comedy with a light touch, she does it, and manages to seem movie-star glamorous even while covered in blood and muck.
Rando stages Pig Farm with comic urgency, and has his cast fully inhabit Pask's set in a way that feels realistic and believable, even when their language and tone are intentionally not. The ensemble flies around the stage with nearly-choreographed sharpness, and their words do the same. It's a true delight to watch clever actors dance the witty collaboration of two theatre artists who make riotous music together—even when this particular collaboration happens not to be a musical.