Fringe 2015: Pig Iron and Dr. Dog’s ‘Swamp Is On’

Falling into a psychedelic swamp

The relentlessly inventive Pig Iron Theatre Company is at it again: igniting its audience with an electrifying new experience unlike any of its previous ones. For this year’s Fringe Festival, they’ve entered into an experimental collaboration with Dr. Dog, a well-known Philadelphia-based band. The result is an eclectic, exotic new creation called Swamp Is On.

Decoding the swamp message is up to you.

Like many of Pig Iron’s previous shows, this one defies categorization. Is it immersive theatre, performance art, or a rock concert with narration? Whatever it is, it’s drawing crowds of enthusiastic young followers to this former railway junction that now serves as a musical venue.

Swamp’s story line is cryptic and complex, like all Pig Iron creations. In this eerie sci-fi scenario, the Dr. Dog band has for years been receiving transmissions from a mysterious character named Phrases, who has fallen into a so-called Psychedelic Swamp. In response, an alliance is formed between the Dr. Dog Pop Detachment (the band members) and the Pig Iron Psychedelic Signals Auxiliary (actors and related members of the parent theater company) to contact the Swamp and communicate with this “other dimension” while scary X Files-looking men look on. (Apologies to Pig Iron if I haven’t decoded the plot accurately.)

A psychedelic three-ring circus

The result is a psychedelic three-ring circus set to music. The cavernous Union Transfer features a stage with a satellite dish (to pick up transmissions from the Psychedelic Swamp, evidently), a huge screen upon which those transmissions are projected (in a clever blend of Beatles and Monty Python-style artwork), and a balcony above the stage upon which scientists and cryptographers are trying to decode the messages. Audience members stand on the first level, alternatingly cheering, dancing, and gaping in astonishment, while other viewers crowd the rear balcony overhead.

This exotic, through-the-looking-glass “magical mystery tour” lasts about an hour, ending with the rescue of Phrases, wrapped in the unraveled cassettes that bore his initial transmissions. (Following an intermission, Dr. Dog returns to play a full set of its own original songs.)

As for the cryptic metaphor of the swamp — is it a creation of the electronic age or a refuge from it? An alternate reality provoking an alarming response from a paranoid government that can’t seem to penetrate it? The decoding of the swamp message is up to you, the show seems to be saying.

D.I.Y. pop oddballs

Judging by the enthusiastic crowds of twenty- and thirtysomethings swamping the Union Transfer lobby, the collaborative experiment between these two Philadelphia-based performing groups is producing unique new indie art. (Alert: Come prepared with a set of earplugs — you many need them.)

The Fringe Festival program describes the Philadelphia-based Dr. Dog as “part of a long tradition of D. I.Y. pop oddballs,” blending ’60s pop-style music (Beatles and Beach Boys) with a contemporary style all their own. As for the unstoppable, endlessly inventive Pig Iron, I’ve been following this creative company for years, from Chekhov Lizardbrain (2008) and Welcome to Yuba City (2009) to 99 Breakups (2014). Ever adventuresome, always brainy, often mischievous, never cowardly, they love to reinvent themselves with every show. This is an ambitious company, intellectually and artistically, that never repeats itself, setting itself a fresh challenge with every new project and embracing it with relish.

As Chekhov, one of their sources of inspiration, once said: “We need new forms.” Pig Iron certainly is creating them.

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