Pig Iron Theatre Company’s inventive “Pay Up,” a flip take on money and value that was the runaway hit of the Philly Fringe festival eight years ago, will likely be a big hit this year in its festival revival.
It opened Friday night on the third floor of the Asian Arts Initiative on Vine Street where, just as before, almost everything is white-washed sterility for the show’s “artificially controlled economic environment.”
Audience members get a handful of dollar bills and white stretchy plastic booties to slip on over their footwear — you mustn’t get dirt marks on any of Anna Kiraly’s set while you spend your dirty money. For the next 65 minutes, you decide quickly which six skits you want to see from a choice of eight, and whether you want to pay for them (bring two or three of your own $1 bills in case you run out of the money you’re given). The price of some skits may change as the show moves forward; at some point, you might pay more for skits labeled as “funny,” or maybe the market value goes up for all of them.
Money is the root of everything in “Pay Up” — the show is all about what it represents, who controls it at what point, what risks you take in spending it and what you get in return for handing it over. Its director, Pig Iron co-founder Dan Rothenberg, says that the company suspects a revival of “Pay Up” will trigger some different thinking nowadays than it did in 2005, before the banking, housing and general economic crisis. I don’t think it will; the fun of the show — and it’s great fun, for sure — is that the many different ideas we invest in the meaning of money are constants. We may be more edgy about money during general or personal economic crises. But we’re edgy about it in the good times, too.
Some so-called innovative theater is more innovative than it is theater, but “Pay Up” (and Pig Iron in general) is highly theatrical and this production puts you in the middle of the action — or more precisely, the interaction. You get a road-map on entry, showing what’s in each of the eight areas where skits play; you listen on headsets to pre-recorded dialogue as actors, who are not hearing the dialogue, mime it with perfect timing. The map marks the skits as sad or funny, day or nighttime plots, ordinary or extraordinary.
There are deadlines for decision-making because seating for each of the skits is limited. There are also little intermissions during which the enormous cast — 31 performers — sings about money and making choices. In all, “Pay Up” is a triumph of detail, everything from multi-track recordings (James Sugg’s sound and Mark Valenzeula’s audio system design) to the many different elements of the script (Robert Quillen Camp’s original text).
Four of the eight skits are newly rewritten for this revival by a Pig Iron group of creators. They’ve left much of the good stuff alone — particularly the intermission songs and the show’s wonderfully staged ending. The idea for “Pay Up” came from real-life research at Yale, by Keith Chen and Laurie Santos, who taught capuchin monkeys how to use money. Several of the skits are a complete fiction about that work and the relationships among researchers and they, too, involve money. I hope Pig Iron makes plenty of it with this show.
“Pay Up” runs in the Fringe festival through Sept. 22 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St. For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com.