I was one who went again, amazed. Here was stage violence to do the WWE proud, brutality more visceral than anything doled out by Hollywood. Watching real live humans boil into such madness brought back every bar-fight I'd ever seen — somehow, each night of the run, they captured true crazy.
Now, as Cordes teams up with Joe vets Tyler Miller and Corrie Van Ausdal for Greg Kotis' bloody off-Broadway hit Pig Farm, a rare excitement has gripped our theatrical underground: Can they capture that crazy again?
Not quite. But the failings here are less on Kansas City's end than on New York's. With Cordes' whip-crack direction, the show is plenty violent and occasionally riotous. Playing Tom, a farmer trying to manage 15,000 pigs with a three-person operation, Chris Nielsen is a compelling hard-ass, given to scary rages and silly reveries — handed a pair of old jeans, he swoons, musing on all the things a less arch play might ask us to believe they represent. Later, between his countless goddamns and bursts of anger, he's moved to soliloquize on memory, noting that you realize you've forgotten something only when you realize you've forgotten it. In this moment, the stupid verges upon the profound.
Sometimes Nielsen shouts too quickly, and his lines are lost, especially when he's giving hell to Kyle Browning's Tim, "a work-release jockey down from juvie hall" whose betrayals fuel much of the story. An excitable drifter always looking for an angle, Tim has the hots for Tom's wife, Tina (Van Ausdal), and spends much time talking about all the things he's going to do. Browning is appealing, especially when he's pawing at Van Ausdal or getting so worked up that he executes a quick moonwalk. He plays more broadly than Nielsen or the excellent Van Ausdal; like all the characters (including Matt Rapport's shit-kicking EPA agent), Tim is sometimes moved to indulge in poetic, parodic monologues. He tells us again and again that on his 18th birthday, he'll knock back with a big bottle of beer.
Lucian Connole's set is a sturdy, well-observed American kitchen, convincing and funny in its detail, and Gary Campbell's costumes are a godsend — this is the best vintage-wear get-up since Late Night Theatre folded.
Too bad all this talent wasn't lavished on a better script. Killer Joe so deftly tangled the comic with the tragic that they became a brutal whole. In Pig Farm, the genres aren't so much tangled as they are slopped together — scraps of melodrama, rinds of farce, and a heap of rotting noir, all of which we're left to straighten out ourselves.
Once in a while, there's a truffle. The roughhouse make-out between Van Ausdal and Browning has fire in it, as do the fights. Throughout, we witness some frightening battery — Cordes stages masculine rage better than anyone in town — but it's undercut with cartoonishness. When Van Ausdal cold-cocks her man with a rolling pin, we're treated to a corny bop! sound. The climax lunges for bloody farce but is most memorable through an absurd, Tom Joad-style speech about the role of bacon in American life.
The mayhem is more offstage than on because of overreaching on Kotis' part. Several climactic moments are unstageable, so we get dissatisfying rumors through muffled sound effects and the histrionic reactions of the onstage cast. The nadir comes at the end of the first act, when havoc wrought by an out-of-control truck feels like the offscreen fender bender on some '80s sitcom. Everyone screams, we hear some crashing, and then the lights come up. We go into intermission not wondering What's going to happen next? but What just happened?
What ultimately does happen isn't anywhere near as interesting as what might have. For a while, Pig Farm works both as melodrama and as a giggly critique of itself and of us. We get caught up in it, even though we should know better. Then the lusty skullduggery of the first half weakens to mere shenanigans in the second. Even juvie Tim's chief betrayal flops, managing to startle only in its blandness and incomprehensibility. It stirred in me three of the key reporter's questions — when? why? and how?— but also a huh? and, sadly, a that's the best you got?
By the end, Pig Farm is too much like the stage knife the actors keep pulling on each other. There's edge, yeah, but no cut.