Paradise lost, continually

Philly Fringe 2019: Pig Iron Theatre Company presents Superterranean’

3 minute read
Out of the void—to what purpose? Evelyn Chen in ‘Superterranean.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)
Out of the void—to what purpose? Evelyn Chen in ‘Superterranean.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

Out of the void, Mimi Lien and Pig Iron Theatre have brought forth their chilling and disturbing Superterreanean. Part of this year’s curated Fringe, the work is a visual tour-de-force, sometimes literally dazzling. The evening is intentionally disturbing, but one of the most disturbing things about this highly produced and ambitious world premiere is an unexpected one-dimensionality and ultimate predictability.

The concept, scenario, and set design was created by the exceptional Mimi Lien, a Pig Iron company member whose career is chock-full of awards (OBIEs and Barrymores and Tonys), firsts (first scenic designer to win a MacArthur Fellowship) and spellbinding theater designs. Pig Iron’s Dan Rothenberg (also no slouch in the awards and seminal productions arena) is co-credited with the scenario. Also the stage director, Rothenberg approached Lien to create a design on which they would build a work, a turnabout from normal theatrical practice, and so they did.

Serious work

This vivid evening plays in a most interesting and surprisingly sleek venue that is normally home to wrestling. The performance space is one large room that somehow retains the odors of sweat and strain, appropriate for the production’s hard-working nine actors.

Not a surprise considering the creators involved, Superterranean takes itself very seriously indeed. It opens with a retelling of creation: in the first section, writhing forms arise out of the void—some black and sparkly, some fluffy and cloudlike, all menacing. After this sustained visual dialogue between light and dark, a naked woman (Eve, perhaps) wanders onto the set, and—later garbed in a fur coat to cover her nakedness and the catheter that gathers her fluids—she continues her wandering throughout the evening.

Subliminal menace

In the second section, the elemental scene changes abruptly to Lien’s chilling bunker, part locker room and part industrial plant, its subliminal menace occasionally tempered by quirky elements. Portals spew amorphous masses, steam seeps from mysterious orifices, and scenes change abruptly with an ominous and predictable click.

What’s the story? Ensemble members of ‘Superterranean.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)
What’s the story? Ensemble members of ‘Superterranean.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

Actors (no delineated or named roles) do not speak, but pose, sit, or move about, occasionally interacting in ways tentative, exploratory, or hostile, seldom loving. All are garbed in Olivera Gajic’s clever-yet-disturbing costumes ranging from sinuous pink body-bags to running togs to tunics with peek-a-boo windows.

Occasionally, 1950s lounge tunes and original music by Lea Bertucci punctuate the beautiful but aurally challenging, intentionally oppressive sound design (by Bertucci and Toby Pettit) that rumbles, throbs, tolls, thumps with a visceral resonance. The lights (by Barbara Samuels) swing from gorgeously misty and mysterious to a cold industrial glare, by the end evoking gothic cathedrals and the unexpected beauty of some ubiquitous fluorescent fixtures.

Stunning, but sans narrative

The show has surprising and disturbing misogynistic overtones. Though actors’ bodies are often partially revealed, only the women have full exposure. And there is no “Adam” to partner “Eve” in her obvious, repetitive, and naked distress.

Inspired by a fascination with urban infrastructure and the underbelly of our mechanized society, Lien’s often-striking work is pellucid and consistently visually arresting. In a devised theater piece created with these gifted actors, there is however the expectation of a glimpse of narrative, even if oblique. But Superterreanean (a truly great title) imparts the same message throughout. Though the closing scene is stunning—huge lighted pillars extending into nothingness—Eve wanders back through it, naked again, and this dystopian/utopian vision closes as it opens, with little change and no hope of redemption.

What, When, Where

Superterreanean. By Mimi Lien, Dan Rothenberg, Pig Iron Theatre Company, and co-creator/performers Rolls André, Isaac Calvin, Evelyn Chen, Jenn Kidwell, Mel Krodman, Chelsea Murphy, Dito van Reigersberg, Tony Torn, and Saori Tsukada. Through September 15 at the 2300 Arena, 2300 South Swanson Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or

The 2300 Arena is ADA-compliant, but seating is on risers with only one row on the floor available for wheelchairs or those with limited mobility.

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