Cafeteria creates images that stay with you: the young woman smearing her face with mashed potatoes and disappearing; a cleaning woman slowly clearing the stage of a corpse with a shop vac.


Pig Iron Theatre Company, last week at Lang Performing Arts Center, Swarthmore College; and at Independence Seaport Museum, Fri., Sept. 19, 10 p.m. and Sat., Sept. 20, 7 p.m. at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, 893-1145.

The cast of Cafeteria, sans mashed potatoes.

Founded three years ago by five Swarthmore graduates, Pig Iron Theatre Company has been kicking around in various cities, developing pieces during summer residencies at Swarthmore and in rented spaces in New York, and performing them in off-off-Broadway venues and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, when the members were not off honing their skills in various schools and theater companies (the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Theatre de Jeune Lune, the Thetre du Soleil, and, notably, the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris).

Now, after their new piece Cafeteria has a brief run at the first Philadelphia Fringe Festival next month, Pig Iron comes home to Philadelphia for its first full resident season (at a location to be determined).

Cafeteria will give you a good idea of Pig Iron's singular vision and their noteworthy talents. Nothing much happens in the 85 wordless minutes of the piece, created by founding director Dan Rothenberg and three of the company's founding actors (the fourth has gone off to start her doctoral work in theater). Three cafeteria workers (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Solveig Holum and Dito van Reigersberg) pop in and out of hatches and cafeteria lines, start in horror at the sight of the audience, and then gather enough courage to spoon-feed some mashed potatoes to an audience member; a teenage thug (Bauriedel) terrorizes a young woman (Holum) with, among other things, mashed potatoes; three shiny-haired figures in black suits toting black attache cases explore the world of the cafeteria (gluing their forks to their foreheads with mashed potatoes in the process); an elderly couple shuffle on for a distracted meal together.

Pig Iron's last group piece, Dig or Fly (which I saw last year in Edinburgh), was heavy on text and heavy on ideas, juxtaposing the 19th-century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann getting lost in the ruins of Crete with Daedalus building the labyrinth, Amelia Earhart on her last flight and Icarus using his wings for the first and last time.

Like Dig or Fly, Cafeteria uses its environment (created here by Jeffrey Sugg) brilliantly, and creates images that stay with you: the young woman shedding her backpack, smearing her face with mashed potatoes and disappearing through the hatch in some inexplicable act of transcendence; the three figures in black scaling the upturned cafeteria table and sliding backwards down its incline in a snowstorm of confetti; a cleaning woman slowly clearing the stage of a corpse with a shop vac; and -- the most beautiful image of all -- a gondolier figure (van Reigersberg) gliding on stage in roller skates and serenading the elderly woman with an exquisite Italian art song into his gondola (and into death?).

Unlike Dig or Fly, Cafeteria doesn't rest on its intellectual conceit, and asks you instead to surrender to its imagery rather than grapple with its layers of meaning.

Or does it? The piece ends with a flurry of nattering insect life, as wraith-like puppet bugs (created by Jun Iseyama) take over the cafeteria, and with a final image, seen through the cafeteria hatch, of a chrysalis slowly twirling in space. Death, decay and rebirth? The circle of life? Reading backwards from this image, the whole theater piece takes on more meanings than we had understood it to have -- perhaps a dramatized cycle of birth, youth, maturity, decline and death.

The images, always beautiful, now, in retrospect, seem meaningful; and the meanings are, well, a bit banal. Better for Pig Iron to leave the meanings to more heady pieces like Dig or Fly and, in Cafeteria, to do what it does best: move through space to music, creating images that continue to haunt long after the piece is over.

Check out Cafeteria at the Fringe Festival. And stay tuned for Pig Iron's first full Philadelphia season. It's impossible to know what such talent and imagination will come up with.

-- Cary M. Mazer