You'll never believe where playwright Greg Kotis and director John Rando - once of Urinetown, now of Pig Farm - are headed after their porky fun-poke at the Laura Pels Theatre. Then again, given their Tony Award-winning wit and irreverence, you probably would believe it.
"Yeast Nation!" Kotis blithely declares big as you please, bright of promise. They and their Urinetown composer, Mark Hollmann, "have a project we hope will find life," he says, "a very odd piece - a musical - that takes place underwater, in the primordial soup."
The boys are pretty fluid with liquid assets, so this seems a perfect time - while they're momentarily in dramatic dry-dock - to reveal how they'll next go with the flow, as it were.
"It's about the beginning of the beginning of life," volunteers Rando hastily, leaping into this roiling miasma like some kind of Voice of Reason. "It's the first life form at all, and all the actors play little yeasts. It's their struggle - on the scale of Greek tragedy. There is one yeast - his name is Jan - and he decides to divide himself into two, turning into Jan the Younger and Jan the Elder. Then, all the other yeasts start splitting and form a nation - a nation of Jans. There's Jan the Wise, and Jan the Sly, and a whole collection of yeasts struggling on the bottom of the ocean, trying to survive on what little salt that remains. Eventually, one of them decides to rebel and floats up to the surface. At the surface, he finds the muck he needs to eat, but, in doing so, he actually creates a new life form that destroys the yeasts. And it's sort of the beginning of the next complicated organism." By now, their listener's jaw has dropped in astonishment to table level, but Rando cheerfully continues, eventually pausing a long beat to allow his writer to administer the punch line. "Strangely," Kotis says, baffled, "we haven't been able to find a producer."
'Tis the cross they bear. Far away places with strange-sounding names - very strange-sounding names - are a specialty with these two fearless fortysomethings. Their collaborations come from a core of concrete reality, then quickly go crazy on them.
"One of the joys of Urinetown," says Kotis, oblivious to how those words sound together, "was finding an ally in John for this offbeat, unlikely humor Mark and I have. Basically, to take a bad idea and surround it in talent was the fun of Urinetown. There are a couple of terrible ideas at the center of Pig Farm, but they are encrusted with great talent."
The "terrible" premise provoking Pig Farm is that a solitary couple - Tom (John Ellison Conlee) and Tina (Katie Finneran) - would work a farm that has 15,000 pigs. "But they have a helper," Kotis offers with sunny lameness - only this single hired help, Tim (Logan Marshall-Green), is more single than help (helping himself, in point of fact, to Tina while Tom tries drinking his guilt away for having dumped sludge into the river). Enter, snooping and snorting, Teddy (Denis O'Hare) of the Environmental Protection Agency, rattling his saber at Tom and his libido at Tina, swelling the love triangle into a rectangle.
"Everybody's name begins with T," says Kotis, citing Terrible Idea Two. "It's the conceit of the story that every human being in this world has a name that begins with a T sound. There are other deliberate theatrical choices here - that the EPA could be responsible for going to these farms to have these pig audits, for example, G-men running around a farm with pads and pieces of paper counting and marking pigs. It's an absurdist exposition."
And the wonder of it is you can get there from here, contends Kotis, who couches his kooky fantasies in fact and reality. Once, while paupering around Paris, he found himself forced to spend his limited funds on pay toilets. That was just a short absurdist kick away from Urinetown. Similarly, he got to Pig Farm via the Hurricane Floyd headlines of 1999.
Particularly hard-hit were C.A.F.O.s, built along the banks of a river in North Carolina - "Confined Animal Feeding Operations, which contained tens of thousands of animals in big sheds," he helpfully amplifies. "That's how pigs are raised nowadays. The riverbanks overflowed, drowning all the animals and unleashing lagoons where animal waste went. So there was this man-made apocalyptic event of tens of thousands of carcasses floating down the river. Just reading accounts of this got me interested in farming and pig production. Our idea of what a farm is, it's grounded in Charlotte's Web. It's not that anymore. Every year, that reality becomes more of a myth, more of our past."
The problem of having 15,000 pigs in a play is resolved, shrewdly and mercifully, with an offstage sound design creation. Otherwise, the action is confined to a farmhouse kitchen, replete with sink. "In the way that Urinetown was an homage to - and a thorn in the side of - classic Broadway business," suggests Rando. "Pig Farm is like the same thing to the classic 70's American drama of Sam Shepard or David Mamet. It's like seeing them, or even O'Neill, through the lens of Urinetown, in the sense of that strange focus of it, but the style is very real. The material is treated with the seriousness of real drama. It's aspiring to be like a classic, devastating American drama, but the details of their world are absurd. I told the actors the other day, 'We have to believe we're the Steppenwolf Theatre in the 70's, and we're putting on one of the most important American dramas to take the stage.' The comedy comes out of that, out of the gravity of the situation, acting style and tone."