L’esprit d’escalier. The French have an idiom for the ghost on the stairs who muddles your thoughts, inspiring a witty retort only once you’ve reached bottom. I’ve heard French speakers use it when they forget what they went up the steps to fetch. A similar German idiom, Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte, translates as a “staircase joke of world history.” They both come to mind after watching the 2021 Fringe remount of Pig Iron’s 2006 Love Unpunished.
Mimi Lien’s Bauhaus-style stairwell set for the original production endures, an instantly recognizable icon for 9/11, the day of world history that saw the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the deaths of thousands of Americans and foreign nationals. Only the darkest humor could find any footing on the set’s three flights of stairs. Yet director Dan Rothenberg and choreographer/co-director David Brick single out human moments that evoked nervous titters from the audience at Friday night’s opening at the Prince Theater.
People on the stairs
Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel’s body, 15 years older than it was at the original premiere, looks only slightly less energetic than it did years ago when he first dropped his laptop on the trot down, opening it to check if it was okay. As a construction worker, Dito van Reigersberg’s tall frame still hangs lithely from his shoulders as he skips down the stairs while checking his clipboard, or stopping to pick up a dropped pencil. Yet now, each has gray hair and middle age is beginning to show.
Makoto Hirano, the bike messenger, looks as I remember from the first production, his tight body and legs taking those stairs like a cakewalk. Hinako Arao, also a co-creator of the original work, looks like the carefree 20-something she was years ago, carrying her coffee blithely while chatting with new cast member Jenna Horton. Other Love Unpunished newcomers include Jaime Maseda, playing the first firefighter, and Jordan Deal and Kyle Vincent Terry, whose horizontal landings on the stair rails were hair-raising.
Bauriedel and Makoto run the stairs in black vests and aprons, representing the 72 restaurant staff who were serving several corporate breakfast attendees. All perished.
No doubt each of us in the audience could identify with at least one of the performers. For me, it was Wendy Staton, who I saw in 2006 as a woman struggling to make it down. Now, with a bad knee replacement, that would be me. How many people, with or without disabilities, would not have been able get down more than a few flights?
These original performers are very secure in their roles and, when joined by younger, less experienced actor/dancers, it makes for a more realistic production this time around.
With very little dialogue, Brick’s choreography shows the story through body language. Chatting before the opening performance, he said that he and Rothenberg often exchanged roles between directing and choreographing. Their movement phrases are at once easy to read and wincingly horrific to contemplate.
People check their watches, talk on their flip phones. Is this just another false alarm? Some run absentmindedly back up the steps as if to fetch a handbag, or, in a panic, looking for a husband. As they pass ascending first responders who tell them to keep going down, the realization of the enormity of the calamity begins to show in their quickened steps. Panic takes over as some callously bypass others who might need help. Reaching the landing, they wobble, unbalanced, limbs broken. They can’t think of what to say, what to do, why they have fled. Their voices are stolen. Is love unpunished and hate rewarded? Maybe it is the spirits of our dead who cannot deliver a quick retort, who won’t let us forget.
*“Love is so short, forgetting is so long” is a line from poet Pablo Neruda’s “Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines)."
What, When, Where
Love Unpunished. By Pig Iron Theatre, presented by FringeArts and Swarthmore College. Directed by Dan Rothenberg and David Brick. Part of the Curated 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Through September 11, 2021 at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com/2021-fringe-festival.
Proof of Covid vaccination is required for all audience members who can receive the vaccine. Face masks are also required.
The Prince Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. More accessibility information is available on the Prince’s website.