Fringe’s ‘Superterranean’ considers the awe and terror of urban infrastructure

“Superterranean” features a forbidding set by Mimi Lien, evoking the awe and mystery of the systems that support urban life.

Members of the Pig Iron Theatre Company rehearse the company's 2019 Fringe Festival offering, ''Superterranean,

Members of the Pig Iron Theatre Company rehearse the company's 2019 Fringe Festival offering, ''Superterranean,"A large-scale work of visual theatre inspired by urban infrastructure and its effect on the human body. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Stormwater pumps, underground ventilation shafts, subway tunnels, electrical substations, and generating turbines are built to make cities habitable — but the design of  these systems are often the least people-friendly forms of architecture.

One of the headline performances at the annual Fringe Festival, which opened Thursday, is about the sublime mysteries of urban infrastructure.

For example, the PES refinery in South Philadelphia produced energy that makes city life possible, but the refinery itself — with acres upon acres of bizarrely twisted of pipes — is forbidding. Even before it exploded earlier this summer, the view from the I-95 bridge appeared to be no-man’s land.

Pig Iron Theatre Company member Mel Krodman pantomimes a bodily crisis during a rehearsal for “Subterranean.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I think of this feeling that you have no idea what’s going on. There’s a chaos. It looks like a mess,” said the show’s theatrical set designer Mimi Lien. “On the other hand, I know that because it was not made with aesthetic intention, there must be a reason it’s a mess.”

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Lien is a past recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award and is creator, in collaboration with the Pig Iron Theater Company, of “Superterranean.” It’s a theatrical investigation into human bodies moving through inhuman built environments.

Award-winning set designer Mimi Lien watches a rehearsal of “Superterranean,” a new work of visual theater driven by Lien’s fascinations with urban infrastructure and the human body’s place within it. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I kind of pride myself on being someone who never listens to headphones while moving around a city,” said Lien, based in New York. “I always want to be connected to spaces I’m moving through. Putting on headphones is like tuning out.”

It’s unusual for a set designer to get top billing on a playbill. The set of Superterranean not only dominates the actors on stage, but dictates what they do. The performance is wordless – no lines are spoken by the performers – and there is not a plot, per se. Instead it is a series of actions that evoke the disconnect between human-sized bodies and industrial-scaled machinery.

Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Dan Rothenberg directs a rehearsal of “Superterranean.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The director and Pig Iron co-founder Dan Rothenberg places Superterranean somewhere on the spectrum between dance and installation art.

“We are trying to zoom in on that feeling you get in your gut when you are around these enormous installations of urban infrastructure,” Rothenberg said. “It doesn’t quite have a name. It’s some feeling that has dread and pride and awe and thrill, all mixed up.”

The performers literally turn themselves inside-out to bridge the gap between massive, unknowable man-made structures and their own bodies. Organic forms and viscera are tools Pig Iron uses to get at Rothenberg’s elusive feeling.

Pig Iron Theatre Company player Jenn Kidwell plays her role in “Subterranean,” the company’s Fringe Festival offering this year. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pig Iron is a devised theater company, meaning they normally do not start with a script but rather with performers inventing movements and meanings with their bodies. Plays – the sets, the sounds, the script — are built out from the actors.

For Superterranean, the process was flipped.

“In this case, Mimi and I had been talking for a long time. What if Mimi put the first marks on the page?” Rothenberg said. “It’s built around the set, built around Mimi’s obsessions.”

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