Without individualized characters and with nothing more than scraps of dialogue, Pig Iron’s balletic “Love Unpunished” tells the story of the evacuation of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Instead of the iconic images of the burning WTC, it shows us what might have happened indoors, on the 90 flights of stairs, before the people inside the building knew what had happened. This Sophoclean irony — we know what they don’t — is the survivor’s legacy and the audience’s burden.
Like an Escher drawing come to life, “Love Unpunished” creates a seemingly endless loop of stairs from the three visible onstage. One after another, people walk down the three flights of stairs; when they reappear at the top to walk down again, we are to assume that we are seeing them three flights lower. Or, the actors reappear in different clothes, as different people. Sometimes they meet firemen in full gear going up, and ask, “Is there a real fire?”
The production begins with a relaxed man in a suit chuckling, “Yes, I guess we’re evacuating,” he murmurs to someone on his cell phone as he walks down. Two women follow, chatting and sharing a container of coffee as they go. A bike messenger appears. Then a construction worker in a hardhat holding a clipboard. Then a man in a vest sipping from a water bottle.
Suddenly, everybody is running — “What floor is it on?” — faster and faster. “Watch it,” they say, as they rush past each other. A woman runs upstairs, frantic, calling out, “Mark! Mark!”
There are several chilling scenes involving the restaurant Windows on the World; waiters are talking about the dinner menu (We catch words: “drizzled,” “balsamic reduction”) and a couple appears, dressed for evening, greeted by a hostess. (These anachronisms are puzzling since the attacks took place in the morning, and although they are unnerving, these scenes seem to compromise the rigor of the chronology.)
Then the action becomes eerie: The construction worker drops his pen at exactly the same point on the same step each time. There is a peculiar encounter between a woman and a fireman who pass each other; she stops to touch his face through his gasmask. We see men with people on their shoulders. We hear scraps of conversation: “Does anybody know who this is?” A janitor tries to ward off the firemen with a broom.
Then the action becomes surreal: Two actors, both in white shirts, freeze and, in perfect sync, reverse their course.
The action then shifts to a black-wall zone, stage left, where people are disoriented, falling and crawling as the floor seems to tilt. Two strangers kiss passionately.
Through it all we hear strange sounds: magnified white noise, a ukulele, Turkish finger cymbals, horrifying rumbles. The sound design, like the lighting design (frightening because it seems random) refuses to illustrate the drama; nobody has cued the scary music, we’re on our own, with only the weight of hindsight.
David Brick’s choreography rises from the literally pedestrian to the terrifying, alternating between collapsing and reviving, requiring ever more virtuosity of the actors. Dan Rothenberg’s direction carefully calibrates the emotional temperature of this short, intriguing piece, reining in the sorrow inherent in the show’s subject and refusing any inclination toward melodrama.
“Love Unpunished” is at once radically different (quiet, humorless) from Obie-winning Pig Iron’s other work, yet recognizably similar (physical, disciplined, visually startling). This world premiere makes an impressive conclusion to the company’s 10th-anniversary season in Philadelphia.