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Swine Song

And these little piggies went to the market. (Photo by Ed Krieger/SCR)

In the fall of 1999, Greg Kotis’ musical, Urinetown — a yellow comedy about a pay-per-pee public-toilet magnate who kidnaps and banishes impoverished souls who dare to relieve themselves al fresco — was opening at the New York International Fringe Festival, prior to its off-Broadway and Broadway transfers two years later. (Kotis received two Tony Awards for the musical — for his book and for the lyrics, which he co-wrote with composer Mark Hollman.) At about this time, Kotis was researching the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, which swept 110,000 pig carcasses down the rivers and aqueducts of eastern North Carolina.

“They’d built a series of industrial pig farms right along the river,” Kotis says, “with slatted floors, all indoors, so that the canals underneath the floors receive the waste. These canals lead to pools of fecal sludge in the open air, so the lagoons and the rivers were flooded.”

Kotis says that he didn’t immediately fathom how to turn the ecological horror into Pig Farm, a satire of agribusiness, the federal government and ecological doom, opening at South Coast Repertory on January 12, but Hurricane Floyd certainly shattered his Charlotte’s Web idea of what a farm is. “I just couldn’t believe the number of carcasses.”

Though born in Queens, Kotis grew up in Cape Cod, where he recalls “Chekhovian summers” on a spit of land — “essentially a sand dune, like North Carolina, where one of the big issues was the water table disappearing because as the population grows, the aquifer has to be exploited.”

His research into big agribusiness fed into what he describes as his perpetual anxiety about the state of things.

“Because we have industrialized agriculture, it means our food is cheaper and there’s a lot of it,” he says. “And it’s been pretty reliable. Agriculture is the No. 1 export in the U.S. It’s completely corporate. They’ve got it down. The problem is, it’s all driven by fossil fuels and choices which come down to separating the component parts, and doing it at a scale that’s unsustainable.”

Hurricane Floyd was a window onto that scale, and onto the collective vulnerability that comes from being so segregated from the food we eat. Kotis has adapted his agri-eco jitters into Pig Farm, a broad farce that concerns the faltering marriage between a struggling pig farmer and his wife. When an agent of the Environmental Protection Agency visits their farm, demanding that all 15,000 pigs be counted, one by one, the farmer employs a young hired hand, who catches the eye of the farmer’s wife.

“The gag in Pig Farm is that it’s a family operation trying to run its farm on an industrial scale,” Kotis explains.

The play opened last summer in an off-Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre Company as part of a joint venture with San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where it played after being trounced by the New York critics. (The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood described it as “gleefully stupid.”) That didn’t stop South Coast Rep from picking it up, and Kotis is quite sanguine about Pig Farm not reaping the critical acclaim that was heaped on Urinetown. New Yorkers formed camps, he says — those who walked out on Pig Farm and those who gave it standing ovations. He was understandably delighted by its comparatively warm reception in San Diego.

“When you’re off-off-Broadway, you see mostly your peers, as opposed to subscribers, who are well-seasoned theatergoers, but not professionals.” Kotis says that the spirit of the play comes from outsider art — absurd, heightened language and artifice, so it’s close to Urinetown in sensibility, with similar off-off-Broadway roots. “To see that audience [in San Diego] respond to this play is a joy.”

There are two other differences, explains Kotis. Urinetown had a commercial run, so people were choosing to see it based on word of mouth and reviews, rather than from its being packaged inside a season. Also, Kotis adds, “Urinetown was a musical, so however tough the crowd was, the music was so strong it could save the play where the book was failing. Pig Farm has none of those firewalls.”

After leaving his childhood haunts in Cape Cod, Kotis went to Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, and became part of that city’s famous comedy-improv circuit. With that cachet, he moved to New York and developed the idea for Urinetown at a local church, where Mark Hollman was the organist. The concept for Urinetown sprang from an earlier backpacking trip, during which he found himself destitute in Paris, with barely enough change in his pocket to pay for use of the public urinals. These are the kinds of personal moments that feed into Kotis’ political imagination, yet Kotis denies being a political playwright.

“When I see great political theater and conviction on the stage, I’m filled with admiration, but that’s not me,” he says. “I don’t have the passion of a Tim Robbins or a Mike Nichols. I’m basically a nebbishy, fearful person. I stay in my little apartment in Brooklyn, but I consume news a lot, which makes me frightened and anxious.”

Another revelatory experience for Kotis occurred during a visit to a factory farm, when he had to dress in a special suit so he wouldn’t contaminate the animals.

“A whole herd can be wiped out when one gets sick,” he says. Disaster is always one tiny virus away.

Kotis certainly doesn’t subscribe to the artist-as-a-vehicle-of-God approach to writing.

“I visited a friend recently, a contractor,” Kotis says. “He can build a house. I can’t do that. I scribble away and try to come up with things that will make people laugh. I feel like I’m the most expendable person on Earth. I like survivalists. They know how to forage for food. Two percent of the population is involved in food production. I’m one of the 98 percent, so there’s a lot of us.”

Given the subject matter of Urinetown, Pig Farm and Kotis’ play that came in between (Eat the Taste — a self-referential comedy about former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, after having seen Urinetown, strong-arms Kotis and Hollman into writing a musical about him), it’s hard to take at face value Kotis’ claim that he doesn’t write from political convictions. His works are saturated in politics, though his point of view steers clear of righteous indignation or appeals for action. Instead, Kotis uses his wit to penetrate his despondency — a jokester who doesn’t believe in happy endings.

“Keep in mind,” he points out, “that Pig Farm is written from the viewpoint of an urban person disconnected from what makes the world go round, who is convinced that it’s not going to end well.”

Pig Farm is in previews at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; opens Jan. 12; plays through Jan. 28. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org.

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