When it comes to 99 Breakups, Pig Iron Theatre Company’s offering at this year’s Fringe Festival, breaking up is easy to do.
The show, which takes place in the ornate and exquisite space of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, squanders the many possibilities of what seemed a promising concept with superficial takes on relationships gone sour.
Perhaps the most exciting moments of the night arrive as the audience stands outside waiting to enter the production, and two couples storm across PAFA’s courtyard, mid-fight, crying and screaming. A dramatic melee ensues, including tears, laughter, and an artificial waterfall. The stage has been set for high drama and/or melodrama, but once the audience is shepherded inside the building, their expectations are unmet.
On the stairs to the performance, patrons are handed T-shirts, teddy bears, toothbrushes, and other relationship tokens and sent to the high-ceilinged central room, where an overloud rock band is ablaze. Women dressed in hooker outfits wander the space in a confusing tableau. When the noise finally ends, the audience is divided into groups of about 20 based on their tokens and taken over by docents who will lead them through several scenes of love, work, and companionship gone wrong.
Our docent started off by asking who was single, divorced, or married in the group. I thought he might do something interesting with the information, but like much of the evening to come, it was simply a superficial question. As we went through the museum, the tour continued to remain on the surface. For example, on occasion, our guide stopped at a museum painting, laboriously trying to draw parallels between the topic at hand and the content of the painting. But most of the information was either obvious or not that revelatory — a nod to a small Georgia O’Keeffe brought the well-trod story of her troubled marriage to Alfred Steiglitz; a glance at an Alice Neel brought news of her divorce.
Between these detours were sandwiched a variety of scenes: a husband and wife trapped in a queen bed arguing, with bullhorns, about French pronunciations and their sex life; a moment in an elevator presents a cat-and-mouse game of desire and rejection; and a woman who was fired from her job talking from behind closed glass doors. None of these moments was connected with any other, and all lacked subtext, subtlety, or any larger meaning.
In the description of the Fringe play, the copy referred to the vicarious thrill of witnessing someone else’s personal life turned inside out in the open. True enough. But it is the mission of the artist not to simply report the news but to interpret it, to deepen it, to give it a point of view from which to examine it.
It isn’t enough to stare.
Concluding the piece was an ensemble performance, with the company dancing haphazardly while an actor repeated a story of first love, ending with the tag line, “It’s funny how you don’t know if it's a love story or a breakup story until the end.”
Like much of the evening, this rather obvious take on romance might have been better left unsaid.