Monday, November 24, 2014

The Old Man and the Old Moon: Small-Time Charmer

Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen in The PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Old Man and the Old Moon

The PigPen Theatre Co. has been touring around its musical fairy tale, The Old Man and the Old Moon; I missed it at Williamstown last summer but caught up with it in the ArtsEmerson series in Boston. PigPen consists of seven men who got together as freshmen drama students at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, which makes them around twenty-five. And indeed the spirit of the piece, which they devised in collaboration with their director, Stuart Carden, is undergraduate in the best sense: it feels freshly minted, and it’s devoid of even the smallest taint of cynicism or smugness.

The narrative is a shaggy-dog fable about how the phases of the moon evolved. An old man (Ryan Melia) is tasked with filling up the moon every night with liquid light. Then one day his wife (Alex Falberg), stirred by a familiar piece of music she hears on the wind, sails off to follow it, and the old man, distraught, abandons his post to try to find her. He has a series of adventures on the way:  he gets a ride on a war ship and replaces its captain when he’s killed in battle, he gets swallowed up by an enormous fish, and so on. Meanwhile the moon wanes and finally fades out entirely; the nighttime sky is sunk in darkness, there’s nothing to control the tides, and chaos ensues.

Melia, Ben Ferguson, Alex Falberg, and Nuernberger
The style of The Old Man and the Old Moon sometimes suggests Story Theatre, a dramatized storybook of considerable charm that enjoyed some popularity in the early seventies (it had a Broadway run), but The Old Man is folksier and it lacks Story Theatre’s hippie self-consciousness. A number of other comparisons occurred to me while I was watching the PigPen performance, notably to Peter and the Starcatcher and a beautiful puppet show I saw in London last year called Something Very Far Away by the Unicorn Theatre. There’s a strong visual overlap with Something Very Far Away: in both, modest shadow puppets are reflected onto three screens (scrim hung from poles), stage left, stage right and upstage center. But the puppetry is an accessory device here; lovely as it is – the rough-hewn nature of the puppets is part of their appeal – it’s a less prominent element than the music, which all seven members of the ensemble help to provide (piano, guitar, banjo, fiddle, accordion, percussion). Physically they’re a motley crew: one has a beard, one has a pigtail, one has glossy upbrushed hair and sideburns, and one has a shaved head. And they have such a casual collective presence that when they gradually shamble onto the stage to provide some pre-show music, they look like surprisingly clean-cut roadies who have laid claim to the instruments that the actual band just happened to leave on the stage. They’re the real thing, though, and though their acting isn’t polished (at least, not in the way we’re used to in the commercial theatre), it has wit and conviction ad brio, and they’re amazingly versatile. The lack of polish is a virtue here; it isn’t the same thing as a lack of professionalism. (The other members of the company are Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Arya Shahi.)

Much of the delight in watching the play comes from its homemade quality, from the way Carden, the actors and the designers – Lydia Fine on sets, costumes and puppets, Bart Cortright on lighting, Mikhail Fiksel on sound – create surprising effects from combinations or permutations of common, familiar images. No prop master is listed in the program, but I especially loved a dog made of mops, a mast for a boat that looks like it began as an oddly large windshield scraper, and a goose that looks like an outsize red sock with a saucepot inside with a pair of wire cutters for a beak. The shifts are so fast that they add extra punch to the performance; that boat comes together in a single beat. This is the most playful variety of poor theatre. Aspiring young actors who see it must emerge full of hope, their faith in their chosen career affirmed.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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