Scary Shit

Our sick world frightens Greg Kotis, so he writes impossibly funny plays

Aristophanes wrote a play in which a dung beetle feasts on an endless buffet of excrement in order to grow so large it can fly to Olympus. Shakespeare loved a good fart joke. The first word in the landmark play Ubu Roiis, roughly translated, shee-yit. Samuel Beckett didn't call his one-act Krapp's Last Tape by accident.

Add Greg Kotis to the list. His two most successful plays traffic in two of drama's time-honored waste products: piss and shit. The 40-year-old Kotis rocketed to theatrical celebrity in 2002 with Urinetown,a faux-Brechtian send-up of musical theater conventions set in a futuristic society where citizens have to pay a tax in order to pee.

And now there's Pig Farm,a comedy that opens Sunday at South Coast Repertory. While the play is about pigs and the people who raise, feed, count and regulate them, it's also about their fecal sludge—how much of it there is on the farm, what do with it when there's too much, where to dump it.

Pig Farmis like Urinetownin that it's riotously funny and filled with outlandish situations and self-referential writing. But it's also like Urinetownin that it possesses a very serious strain: the issue of sustainability in a world we've done a terrific job of fucking over. That's why the play is set on a pig farm somewhere near the Potomac.

"For me, it is a way of wrestling with issues of sustainability in all its forms and permutations," Kotis said. "There is a serious fear at the underbelly of all this. I don't know if audiences get that or not, because it is funny and I do believe in comedy and slapstick and creating something that is fun to watch and fun to ride. But the issues that underlie [Pig Farm] are the same issues underlying Urinetown. There is a parallel there because both have a serious intent, even if people don't get it."

Kotis cut his theatrical teeth in an experimental theater troupe in Chicago that took that city's great history of improvisational comedy and maxed it out, at one point creating an evening of 30 plays in 60 minutes. But as he matured, got married, had children and began thinking of life beyond weekends at 8 p.m., he began caring more about the world outside his immediate zone. What he saw, heard and read scared him . . . shitless. That's the place that Urinetownand Pig Farmcome from.

Pig Farm's genesis was Hurricane Floyd, which slammed into the mid-Atlantic seaboard in 1999, causing 57 fatalities and nearly $5 billion in damage and forcing water conservation measures in New York City. In North Carolina, which is home to a range of huge hog farms, the hurricane forced rivers to rise above their banks, flooding the industrial pig farms and carrying some 110,000 pig carcasses downriver along with who-knows-how-many toxins and pesticides in their bodies and in their sludge.

"I'd never truly connected to a pig farm before, but when I read all this coverage about the hurricane and the pig farms, it really spurred my interest in industrial agriculture and the green revolution," said Kotis. "I found it's all holistic. Oil is connected to industrialization, which is related to industrial agriculture, which is all connected to the issue of sustainability, whether it's global warming or the rising carbon levels or depleting fisheries. It's everywhere and what was interesting for me is the specific way we've organized, even though it's unsustainable."

His play eventually turned into a battle for survival between a small family farm and the pressures of competing in an era when the only way to make money is to sell out to a huge industrial concern. But this isn't some Bonnie and Clyde-type thing, where the salt-of-the-earth farmers outwit the gubmint bean counters looking to line their pockets with whatever kind of pork they can ram inside them. The farmers are scared, mean and downright criminal. In one of the most chilling moments, a character recounts spying on a couple of teen-aged lovers while they skinny-dip, and then drowning them in a truck full of fecal sludge. There are no outright heroes and no outright villains anywhere in Pig Farm, at least not on two legs. And that's intended.

"In American mythology, ranchers and farmers are usually seen as heroes," Kotis said. "They're usually independent, rugged and brave. Look at Hudor Giantor any John Wayne movie, or some of Sam Shepard's plays. So I thought it'd be fascinating to approach a treatment of a mythological farmer with a disconnect between the tone of the language and our preconceived notions of what they should sound like."

Kotis' script is filled with language slapstick, like alliteration, repetition, characters echoing phrases delivered by other characters, and invented language that just sounds . . . off, like when a character says it takes nine months to "build" a baby. The effect, he says, is to give the impression that something weightier is looming on the edge of these characters' small world—just as the playwright can't escape that something dire looms on the edge of his.

"I am preoccupied with the earth's fragile ecology," Kotis said. "A lot of people are. We're sort of mesmerized and hypnotized by this monster that is looming. So, what do you do with all this information, because it is pretty alarming? I'm not a scientist, a farmer or an engineer or one of those useful things. I'm a consumer trying to raise my kids in a big city and this information does terrify me; and if the rule is that comedy is built on fear, it's definitely present here. Dealing with this fear and naming it and acknowledging it helps make me feel a little less paralyzed, and there's something to be said for embracing the thing you fear the most.

"There are excellent people talking about prescriptions, people who are much more thoughtful and scholarly than I am. I'm impressed by what Al Gore did, and books like The Omnivore's Dilemmaand Pig Perfect. I don't trust my perspective, but I'm alert to what the real people are saying. For me, giving full voice to this fear is the ambition of the play. I certainly feel pretty helpless about most of it, so I try to have what fun I can."


PIG FARM, AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY'S JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555, WWW.SCR.ORG; PREVIEWS SUN., 2 P.M., TUES-THURS, 7:45 P.M.; THEREAFTER, TUES.-SUN., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH JAN. 28. $24-$60.

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