Editors' pick

Civilization (All You Can Eat)

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Editorial Review

Review: This little piggy didn't go to market
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

It takes a tender actress to make a tough pig, and in the unsettling "Civilization (All You Can Eat)," Sarah Marshall lowers herself to the challenge. She's Big Hog, who starts Jason Grote's weirdly worth-it new play as just another quadruped marked for slaughter and ends up on two feet, the formidable representative of a money culture in which one can claw and devour one's way to the very top.

Picking up where Orwell and Ionesco left off, Grote makes the ascendancy of an animal to high social standing one of the narrative pillars of his surrealist exploration of the moral stew of contemporary life. Maybe the questionable hormone treatments our livestock are receiving explain the predatory consciousness Big Hog acquires. "There are places and different kind of places and Big Hog alone will see them," Marshall grunts in primitive English as she scampers in bulbous, pinkish costume, on all fours.

Or perhaps it's reducing to absurdity the Horatio Alger story, whereby success now requires the pulling up of oneself by the hoofstraps. By whatever magic Big Hog manages to join the human rat race, however, the effect in this Woolly Mammoth Theatre world premiere is to intentionally leave a sour taste in a spectator's mouth.

For "Civilization (All You Can Eat)" is a well-constructed satire, thoughtfully orchestrated by director Howard Shalwitz, and designed for an age of ominous indicators. Grote's America - which he also skewered in his dysfunctional-family comedy at Woolly, "Maria/Stuart" - is a carnival of commercial perversity and hostile xenophobic impulses. It's a place in which dashing commuters force choking wads of fast food down their gullets, 30-second candy-bar spots are made to pander to ethnic stereotypes and parasitic ex-academics shill for spurious business concepts on the order of "Making Chaos Work for Your Organization."

The territory Grote covers isn't revolutionary: You've heard the knock on our Darwinian, consumption-crazed way of life many times before. The methods here are richer than the thesis; the playwright's critique is crisply delivered, and slyly contained in a deceptively random-seeming collection of events. In a scene dramatizing the shooting of the candy-bar commercial in a Colonial America motif, the bitter joke is that the George Washington character, played by Alice Gibson, recites an inadvertently pertinent phrase from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

If anything, "Civilization (All You Can Eat)" seeks to underline how stale that lofty sentiment has become in 2008, the play's start date. Grote likes to toy with narrative structure, and, akin to the style of his popular "1001" - a take on "The One Thousand and One Nights" - he wraps stories around stories. In this case, the chillingly bizarre tale of Big Hog frames a more naturalistic one, that of a broke waitress (Naomi Jacobson) who's behind on her mortgage and unable to control her daughter (Casie Platt), a teenager convinced her pot of gold awaits, via stardom in online porn.

The cultural chasm between American haves and have-nots surfaces in "Civilization" when Jacobson's skillfully drawn Carol visits her better-off brother Mike (Sean Meehan), the "Making Chaos Work" guru, and his wife, Zoe (Tia James), who's directing the candy-bar commercial. Carol hasn't figured out how to navigate the etiquette of her brother's interracial marriage, and as a result of that and her money woes, the dinner she's been invited to ends in tears.

The disparate subplots of "Civilization" slowly begin to intermingle; Grote displays a delicate hand with coincidence - but maybe anything falls into the category of plausible after you've been convinced that a pig can mastermind an escape from an abattoir. (With choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning, Shalwitz also devises interstitial sequences of movement to link the scenes, some more evocative than others.) Marshall, meanwhile, infuses Big Hog with such a resonantly grotesque feral spirit that you're prone to belief, even when the animal encounters Platt's teenage runaway in the woods and, shall we say, turns the dinner tables on her.

Costume designer Valerie St. Pierre Smith comes up with a functional and quasi-literal hog suit for Marshall and the other, littler pigs. And set designer Daniel Ettinger's fine work is highlighted most effectively in the extra-creepy final scene, when Big Hog - sitting down to a fancy meal at a garishly decorated palace of cuisine - has attained mogul status.

Although this final tableau could send us out of Woolly with a bit more oomph, it does succeed at its goal of turning our stomachs. In service of that achievement, "Civilization (All You Can Eat)" can surely be said to go whole hog.

Preview: Life from the porcine perspective
By Jess Righthand
Friday, Feb. 3, 2012

Jason Grote admits that his new play "Civilization (All You Can Eat)" - a series of naturalistic vignettes involving a set of tragicomically intertwined characters - would probably play a lot like a Robert Altman movie. That is, if it weren't for his central character, Big Hog.

Come again?

It's no joke. (Or is it?) This play's main antagonist is of the porcine persuasion.

But no oinking here - Grote's Big Hog, played by prolific D.C. actress Sarah Marshall, spews Gertrude Stein-influenced utterances that are thoughtful, abstract criticisms of today's consumerist society.

Grote, perhaps best known for his play "1001," a deconstructed take on "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights," developed this play in 2008, a commission for Clubbed Thumb theater company in New York. It was the playwright's first time working with actors from the very beginning of the writing process (a technique famously used by the British Joint Stock Theatre Company). The interactions that served to germinate "Civilization" - including actor interviews, riffing off dramaturgical materials and improvisation - took place in an old bank vault just a hop, skip and a jump from the New York Stock Exchange.

"It was not conscious at all, but you could feel a certain - it was this very suffocating feeling architecturally, and I think that and the proximity to the stock exchange, it really sort of informed the direction that the play went," Grote says.

As far as Big Hog goes, Grote was inspired by two famous literary examples of swine standing in for people: Orwell's "Animal Farm" and E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." Using them as a jumping-off point, he began fleshing out the character's abstract language and complex psyche.

"What would happen if a mutant pig developed the ability for cognition, to have language and to imagine a past and a future? Things that make the human brain unique? That's sort of where it all sprung forth from, a pretty basic place," he says.

For director Howard Shalwitz, the key to unleashing the possibilities of Big Hog's character started with casting Marshall, who had appeared in Woolly Mammoth Theatre's production of another Grote play, "Maria/Stuart." Shalwitz selected her without so much as an audition, pointing to her command of language. "You look at just the text, which is beautiful and poetic and very fierce and energetic, and it starts by casting someone who you think has the skill to manage that."

Big Hog is a disruptive force that adds drama and heft to the struggles of the human characters, a sorry lot who, for the most part, aren't having an easy time of things. One young woman chooses a life in porn over her job at T.J. Maxx. An aspiring film director pays her dues by making racially insensitive Twix commercials. Big Hog - on the lam after escaping slaughter - pops up periodically as if on the characters' trails, never coming face-to-face with any of them until the end of the play.

"I think what Big Hog does is not only affect the plot but also keeps it in a theatrical universe. . . . It's also kind of a demonic or demiurge character that is partially representing animal instincts and the desire to dominate," Grote says.

To connect the worlds of Big Hog and the other characters, the show is set outside a giant barn/slaughterhouse where, in the beginning of the show, Big Hog's pig friends meet their unfortunate ends. The barn functions as a kitchen, a diner, a studio, etc., for the other scenes. "The basic insight we had is that the play needs to be set at the scene of the crime," Shalwitz says.

When Big Hog finally meets one of the humans, the consequences are less than savory. "Big Hog is sort of the one character who gets everything that he wants by the end of the play and then finds how empty it is," Grote says.

It may sound bleak, but the play is perhaps most interesting for its dark satire. For Grote, many of the characters have much in common with Sisyphus, relegated to an interminable life of rolling a boulder uphill, only to watch it roll all the way down. And he compares the humor in the play to Samuel Beckett's.

"You know," he says, "I think 'Waiting for Godot' is another one where it can be done as a very hilarious comedy that becomes very sad, or it can be done sad from the beginning and then it's just boring. There's no reason to watch it. So I think it's that sort of Beckettian way of kind of looking at these sad and beautiful, funny characters who are just refusing to give up in the face of utter futility."