FRINGE REVIEW: Pig Iron Theatre’s “Pay Up”

G Philly writer-at-large Brandon Baker treks it to the Asian Arts Initiative to critique the dystopian world of Pay Up.

Pig Iron Theatre’s Pay Up is an unusual twist on reality that also speaks to the universal truths of money: Guests are given five one-dollar bills to spend on their choice of eight sectioned-off theater performances — each toting a different price tag. The venue itself is a gargantuan, all-white loft space reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s quixotic chocolate factory — a space where attendees roam freely (and frantically) with quirky, fictitious employees (the actors) of “The Corporation.” 

In short, it feels equal parts Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies.

When warning buzzers go off, signifying it’s time to move to a different skit, participants scatter outside of the eight rooms like mice looking for cheese in a maze-like science experiment. Each room costs a fixed amount of money and can only hold so many people. As such, a number of audience members (if it’s even appropriate to call them that) are shut out during performances, left with nothing to do except aimlessly wander, stare at their money, and interact with “employees.” (Phones and bags are banned from the space.)

Upon my first experience of Pay Up‘s pseudo-purgatory (which feels akin to being knocked over and trampled on during a Walmart Black Friday stampede), my cash suddenly seems like nothing but worthless paper. It’s a reminder of what happens in daily life: Those who take a Machiavellian approach to money are often the ones who glean the most rewards. I learn from this, and when the next buzzer goes off, I cut in line in front of an old lady wearing a lime-green cardigan.

You snooze, you lose.

The skits themselves, as I also learn, are thoughtful pieces of performance art: The cast is well-rehearsed; they perform to pre-recorded dialogue that guests listen to through headphones. These actors don’t speak lines, they make expressions.

My first skit opens with muffled mid-sex groans and slurps (you know the kind), jarringly interrupted by the woman pushing her (male) partner away. The skit then rolls right into a commentary on prostitution: Her partner offers to pay her to continue, which she refuses … until the stipend is negotiated to $900. (Laments the male during blow-job negotiations: “I shouldn’t have to pay extra for something that should be included!”) Is this a common conversation in daily life? Probably not. But it poses a common question: What price tag are you willing to slap onto morality?

Another skit, titled “Amanda,” proved to be more disjointed than thought-provoking. At its core, it was the tale of identity: whether one character would be willing to sell her identity. To its credit, the characters were brimming with personality — one hilarious wisecrack, and one annoyingly shy, indecisive type — and the actors’ performances continued to be top-notch, but the dialogue was painstakingly contrived. It spent so much time trying to live up to a bloated two-dollar price tag for admittance (it’s no Kathy Griffin number) that it felt like it missed the target by a country mile.

Other skits also managed exceptional delivery, but were marred by scripts that didn’t always make the most of the few minutes they had to home-run the bigger picture. They felt, at times, like grown-up Sesame Street sketches — morals presented with too much simplicity and brevity to be taken seriously.

But that’s not to say the show is a bust — far from it, in fact. It’s a nail-biting emotional experience that thrives between sketches, not during them. While waiting between Skit Three and Skit Four, for example, I found myself hauled away to a “break room” for refreshments by an actor who convinced me he was “not performing” and merely wanted to offer me refreshments. And he did. He sat me down on a couch with three others — all sipping their lemonade — to show me a laminated, “artistic” dollar bill that he touted as his big-dreaming escape from the drag of corporate life. It was both a well-thought-out and, I admit, believable, work of fiction.

Still, “fiction” is the last word I’d use to describe Pay Up.

Let me be clear: Pay Up is not the most impressive piece of theater you’ll ever see, but it is one of the most striking pieces of theater you’ll ever experience. Because the heart of its performance art is rooted more in reality than fantasy, you eventually come to understand that you’ve arrived expecting an exit from reality, only to be fully immersed in one that’s even more heavy-handed. There’s no “suspension of disbelief,” because there’s not a thing here that’s unbelievable. For 65 minutes, you’re part of a world where the most trivial of interactions are in question — What is an act, you wonder, and what is real? It’s these blurred lines (insert Robin Thicke joke here) that make Pay Up a mind-bending, blood-tingling experience.

Pay Up runs through Sept. 22 at the Asian Arts Initiative, located at 1219 Vine St.