99 breakups, but no problems for Pig Iron Theater Co. show

The Pig Iron Theatre Company, founded by several Swarthmore alums in 1995, continues to pursue their mission to “expand what is possible in performance by creating unusual and exuberant ensemble-devised works.”

Showing at Philadelphia’s renowned Fringe Festival, “99 Breakups”  takes the audience on a surreal voyage through the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, showcasing interpretations of collapsing relationships. From romantic relationships to bands to work relationships, the audience witnesses these intimate crashes in a series of dismembered scenes throughout the museum.

Director Quinn Bauriedel ’94 says the purpose of the dynamic setting of the museum was “to create private moments in a public space,” a goal that he says is a crucial component in most theater. This inspiration was derived from an experience he recalled in which he witnessed a rough breakup in an airport before a flight. What struck him was the attempt of those involved to express their emotions to the other while simultaneously trying to hide from the growing group of onlookers around them.

The experience began outside of the museum, where the group was met by a tentative, insecure man introducing the production. A few short moments into his introduction, the door of a car next to the museum slammed and a man’s voice shouted over our host’s. After a series of obscene goodbyes, a furious female voice echoed after the man who was now storming through the audience. With sweat clinging to his brow and a guitar case stuffed under his armpit, he pushed past the audience and around the museum toward a back entrance.

In the main hall, a rugged rock band sang their sorrows into mics. A drunk woman in a trashy prom gown pushed her way through the crowd, ranting about her asshole ex-boyfriend. A woman in a wedding gown was holding back tears, destroying a 64-ounce pink Big Gulp and drunkenly flirting with the audience. The band began to yell directions at one another. Their distress flooded into their music and it wasn’t long until the first man from the car left the stage in a rage. One by one the band members left the stage.

In another scene, the audience witnessed a relationship between two art critics from beginning to end. They contorted their bodies together to replicate the images of paintings, until they turned to the painting in the center of the wall, Braught’s Dead Chestnut. The life left their limbs and their forms replicated the painting once more, but this time their bodies were separated and depressed.

In another room centered around a large staircase, two couples, one younger couple below and one older couple above, mirrored each other’s motions as they seemed to approach an event above and below the viewpoint of the audience. As the scene progressed, they continually exchanged positions and argued madly, maintaining this mirror effect until the two couples finally intersected and the eyes of the older man and the younger woman met, while the younger man took the arm of the older woman. There was a long silence filled only with the breath of the couples as they examined their love’s long past and unforeseeable future.

Between scenes, the audience stood in an elevator with a man who was visibly anxious and gagging into a paper bag. He left the elevator before anybody in the group and entered a room with a woman dressed in purple, who had a man in a blue jumpsuit to her right and a woman in red to her left. The three breathed in dramatic synchrony. Another man separated the woman from her companions, guiding her through a glass door where she was fired from her job. Throughout this scene, her traumatized, shuddering breath kept time with the two figures who waited for her. At the end of the scene, she crawled, crying, out the door.

 “99 Breakups” left the audience stunned and brutalized by the raw emotion of their performance. And at the end of the show, nobody in the crowd clapped, spoke or even breathed until the last shudder resonated through the space.

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