‘Gentlemen Volunteers’

Pig Iron Theatre Company of Philadelphia revisits this original from 1998.

By: Matt Smith
   Philadelphia’s OBIE Award-winning Pig Iron Theatre Company, founded by a talented group of Swarthmore College students more than a decade ago, has been entrancing audiences worldwide all that time — but has never put on a full main-stage season.
   The "dance-clown-theater ensemble" has organized one-off productions in Philadelphia, performed in residencies at the likes of Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, and toured as far as Eastern Europe. This winter and spring, however, Pig Iron is firmly entrenched at Drexel University in Philadelphia, revisiting four shows as it leads up to the premiere of a new work in June.
   The initial offering in its Drexel season is Gentlemen Volunteers, a World War I melodrama first staged in 1998. The story of two American ambulance drivers and two European nurses during World War I is rather straightforward, but Pig Iron’s staging is anything but ordinary.
   The 75-minute show is presented in "promenade" on an old athletic court in the Drexel Armory, meaning the audience must literally follow the action. Pig Iron core actors Dito van Reigersberg, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey and Cassandra Friend portray the ambulance drivers and nurses, respectively, and they move benches and people around just as deftly as the material.
   Messrs. van Reigersberg (Rich Conwell) and Bauriedel (Vincent Barrington) nail a sort of wide-eyed, blue-blooded Ivy League innocence as "gentlemen volunteers" for the Great War before the United States enters in. Ms. Friend is the tough-but-girlish British nurse, Mary Pinknell. She falls for van Reigersberg’s character — but doesn’t fall when she lifts her much larger counterpart on her shoulders at one point. Ms. Delpech-Ramey is the most three-dimensional as Françoise de La Tour, the head nurse who is well too aware of the horrors of conflict.
   The real star, however, is James Sugg, listed in the program as L’Homme d’Orchestra/One-Man Band. Pig Iron’s talented music man creates an old-time radio soundscape using everything from accordion to a table full of even more unlikely instruments (a metal bowl filled with water, masking tape, etc.).
   Kudos also go to director Dan Rothenberg for keeping the somewhat impressionistic work from straying too far out there, and to lighting designer Trey Lyford, who uses mostly single hanging bulbs to illuminate the space.
   Pig Iron’s 2006 season continues with the Queen-inspired Mission to Mercury (2000), a one-man work about poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York (1997), and the black comedy Hell Meets Henry Halfway (2004) — all capped by a new dance-theater piece, Love Unpunished, about contemporary American disasters.
Gentlemen Volunteers continues at Pig Iron Theatre Company, Drexel Armory, 33rd and Lancaster streets, Philadelphia, through Jan. 22. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 7 p.m., Sun. 2, 7 p.m. Tickets cost $20-$25. For information, call (215) 627-1883. On the Web: www.pigiron.org