Pig Iron Theatre’s “Love Unpunished” Depicts the Grief of 9/11 Through Movement

Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin

“I am searching for the provocations that lead me to let me live this life more fully, to find beauty in its mundanity and not so much in the grand narratives that give us comfort,” said director Dan Rothenburg in the playbill for “Love Unpunished.” “Because those grand narratives get weaponized by political actors so quickly and so cynically — with the most shocking example in my lifetime being the iconography of 9/11.”

Originally developed in 2006, the Pig Iron Theater Company created “Love Unpunished” as a memorial to the humanity of 9/11. Fifteen years later, the company brought it back complete with a rebuilt set, new edits, and a cast consisting of both original members and new faces. On September 18 and 19, 2021, they brought the play to Swarthmore as a Cooper Series event. Conceptualized and directed by Dan Rothenburg and choreographed and co-directed by David Brick, “Love Unpunished” ran just under 70 minutes and took place entirely on three flights of concrete stairs on the stage.

Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin

When audiences filed into the LPAC theater, they encountered a set that was duplicit in its simplicity. A black platform raised the ground level six feet off the stage, and a black wall, embellished by a singular fire alarm pull station, marked the furthermost point on stage left.. The rest of the set — designed by Tony Award-winning set designer Mimi Lien — consisted of 20 feet of stairs, the site of most of the storytelling. 

An original devised work by the company, “Love Unpunished” tells the stories of everyday people on the stairs of the World Trade Center during 9/11. Actors walk down the stairs in a loop, sometimes as the same characters, and sometimes in completely different costumes and with different urgencies. The loops consist of simple, everyday scenarios: two women walk down the stairs while looking at a cell phone in one loop, while in another, a businessman hurries down the stairs, computer in hand. Actors costumed in full, genuine firefighter regalia follow the opposite path as the actors playing employees and change their thoughts and minds from resigned irritation … to true panic. As the firefighters enter the narrative, they change the attitudes and rhythm of each character’s loop; it’s the first unbalancing in a play full of them. 

As “Love Unpunished” is primarily a movement piece, there is very little dialogue, and it is composed of primarily abstract movement. Though an interesting way to break up the narrative, the movement comes without context or explanation; it’s up to the audience to interpret. Is the building that the people are in tilting? Is that why they are falling? Or is it the fact that the foundations of their lives and their sense of normal has just irreparably shifted and the movement is a dramatization of their instability? To an audience who hasn’t studied movement in theater or who entered without expecting to have to work to interpret the plot, the movement can become more of a confusing haze than a complex way of understanding grief. 

Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin

Some transitions from mundanity to panic, on the other hand, are evident. At one point, the stairs change from the everyday stairs any employees might take to service stairs behind a restaurant. This scene is also one that shows grief much more concretely, as a man grieves for his date who left to go to the bathroom and never returned, and leads to a better understanding of the play as a whole. 

The first action loop repeats multiple times throughout the show: twice at the beginning and once closer to the end, after the lives of the characters have been changed forever. During the last loop, the lighting changes: it is no longer a highlight of the goings-on of the day, but a retrospective glance at innocence before the entire world changed. 

“Love Unpunished”, overall, is not only a story of grief and panic, as is illustrated in the show’s promotional materials. It is, instead, a look into the human experience on a day that changed history, and a reflection on the question: after a tragedy, why do the simple moments before stand out so vividly? When the world tips off its axis, why do we remember the moments before the ones that changed everything? In this sense, “Love Unpunished” is relevant in the current climate of COVID-19. Isn’t it the little simplicities that we miss now that they are gone? Haven’t people lost people they loved through circumstances out of their control? By utilizing movement, repetition, and just enough noise to pull the audience into the characters’ stories, “Love Unpunished” weaves a story of the mundane that can never be reestablished and the twisting human emotions that come with the foundation of reality changing overnight. 

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