There should probably be a moratorium on fiction that centers on September 2008. There have been award-winning films, both fictional and journalistic, that revisited a month defined by bailouts and financial uncertainty. With Jason Grote’s Civilization (all you can eat), now at The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, we can also add experimental theater to the list. Bizarre and off-putting, the play awkwardly stumbles through its attempt at provocation.
A wood-panel curtain, one that looks like an ad for USDA-approved pork, dominates the stage. Farm animals wander across, and a group of actors in pig costumes linger at its center. Big Hog (Sarah Marshall) begins to speak in tortured, stilted English, as if the creature just developed the capacity for language. Alongside its vocabulary, Big Hog develops a plan to escape from the abattoir, one that involves self-mutilation.
The other characters are slightly more traditional. Mike (Sean Meehan) is an aspiring self-help guru, and his wife Zoe (Tia James) directs popular commercials for Twix bars. Mike’s sister Carol (Naomi Jacobson) turns to Mike for a bailout from her shitty mortgage. Carol is also a racist, suicidal depressive. Her daughter Jade (Casie Platt) worsens the situation since she plans to raise money with amateur porn. Already at varying degrees of despair, Grote follows these characters as they self-destruct or buy into a system that cares little about them.
Symbolism and frayed emotions are what connect the characters instead of a tight plotting. After Big Hog attacks an unsuspecting veterinarian, I was not sure what to expect afterward. But even as Grote establishes a rhythm and an impressionistic plot, the cumulative effect is disengaging. I see what the characters represent, but Grote treats them more like symbolic vessels, not individuals; the parallels between the characters and the September 2008 zeitgeist are both morbid and obvious. Some standalone scenes work, particularly when Carol and Zoe’s friend David (Daniel Escobar) attempt to persevere through their depression. But drama like this demands a tighter production, which is where Civilization loses its power.
Already at a lean running time of 100 minutes, pregnant pauses slow down the action. Choreographed interludes are rife with symbolism – at one point, the actors careen across the stage in shopping carts – and the graceless transitions left me eager for them to wrap up. Director Howard Shalwitz also has actors wheel in props before and after their scenes; it’s another bit of stagecraft that forces the audience to wait politely, albeit with growing discomfort.
In the final scene, the stage finally opens for the Big Reveal, yet the transitional clumsiness lessens the shock. But for all its production problems, the Big Hog scenes are what stifle its impact. In a thankless role, Marshall does what she can as a demented pig. She even finds a modicum of humanity within Big Hog, however ugly. And when Big Hog lists every object he/she knows, for example, the character’s discovery outlasts the audience’s patience.
Civilization (all you can eat) is part of Woolly’s season-long exploration of how the world may end. According to Grote, adaptation and a willingness to sell out are the only alternatives left when the world is driven by unsparing greed. He makes this conclusion by having his characters sacrifice their dignity, or by ruthlessly consuming anyone in their way. Fleeting moments of humor and empathy are meant to help us swallow this buffet. But with unseemly ingredients and poor presentation, I’ve already lost my appetite.
Civilization (all you can eat) is running at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through March 11. Buy tickets here!