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A scheming pig running hog-wild isn’t a bad metaphor for the 2008 economic meltdown. Nor is a lecturer losing his composure while delivering a talk called “Making Chaos Work for Your Organization.” Nor, for that matter, is a personal refinancing crisis that fractures a family, or a job-loss pep talk that references fractals, or a recent college grad who decides porn is her ticket to success, or a black filmmaker/Hispanic actor team that makes a racist candy-bar commercial because…well, because that’s where the money is in 21st century America.
Jason Grote’s overstuffed, understructured dramedy Civilization (All You Can Eat) has all that and more, so credit the playwright with finding plenty of ways to talk about the chaotic hyperconsumption and collective wishful thinking that led us to the state we’re in. Now if only he had things to say that were as compelling as the souped-up, video-savvy, choreographed, and visually provocative production Howard Shalwitz has mounted at Woolly Mammoth.
Start with that pig, Big Hog (Sarah Marshall in porcine drag), who’s picked up a few random human words, and is soon snorting rebellion in the slaughterhouse. With an assist from costumer Valerie St. Pierre Smith’s snout caps and fatsuits and set designer Daniel Ettinger’s trap doors and wood planking, Shalwitz creates and populates an unnervingly persuasive pigsty. And with Marshall snuffling, feral, and increasingly articulate and power-hungry, the production then traces Big Hog’s progress from pig to capitalist pig. Yes, George Orwell got there first, but the more salient issue is that this is a lot of effort merely to describe a problem rather than illuminate it.
As is setting up that chaos-theory lecturer (Sean Meehan) with so many chaotic women in his life—a sister who’s losing her home, a wife who’s selling her soul, a niece who’s selling her body, and an actress who’d happily sell her body if it would help her sell her soul—that he’s lost faith (and even interest) in the lecture he can’t complete.
Every one of these characters, let’s note, turns out to be linked intricately to the others, in ways brushed in with great efficiency in scenes that make distinct, if fleeting, impressions. Still, not one of them has anything to say that’s half so intriguing as the synchronized transitions Diane Coburn Bruning has choreographed to get them from one sequence to the next—actors racing across a video streetscape while scarfing down sandwiches, or making a dining room materialize almost fractally, by sliding into, out of, under, and through six chairs and a table in self-duplicating patterns. It’s sumptuous visually—especially the feast-for-the-eyes restaurant sequence that caps the evening—but is it food for thought? Not so much.