I’d be hard pressed to identify a favorite from among the many moments of sheer theatrical magic in PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and The Old Moon. Would it be that early, audible-gasp-invoking episode in the story when the Old Man (Ryan Melia) first climbs to the top of a ladder with a bucket of light to refill the moon (an effect achieved by ensemble member Curtis Gillen, with a large flashlight and, as best I could determine, a piece of paperboard), accompanied by the amplified sound of liquid pouring into a bucket, courtesy of ensemble member Arya Shahi? The sudden shift in scale as a monstrous, bony, shadow-puppet fish circles ominously around the tiny shadow of the old man sinking into the watery depths, just before the fish devours him? The delightful transformation of a wall of glass bottles into a xylophone? The flight of the glowing, water-gallon-bottle dirigible? The excited panting of the bleach-bottle-and-mophead dog (lovingly animated by Dan Weschler)? The flapping of the shoe-last fish?
Moreover, the magic doesn’t only reside in those scenic elements of the show – the inventively cobbled-together puppets and props (by scene designer Lydia Fine), the captivating lighting (Bart Cortright) and the imaginative sound design (Mikhail Fiksel). It’s also in the music and story, which were collaboratively devised and written by the seven members of the PigPen Theatre Company: Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, and Matt Nuernberger, in addition to Gillen, Melia, Shahi, and Weschler. Full disclosure: these actors were among the first students I ever taught in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, and I’ve been a fan of their DIY approach to storytelling ever since they were inspired by the 2007 Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts – and in particular, by the company The Suitcase Royale – to begin experimenting with a combination of music, narrative, dialogue, simple shadow puppetry, and rough-and-ready scenic and lighting elements to tell simple but captivating stories. In the intervening years, the “PigPen boys” (as those of us in the School of Drama continue to fondly call them) have not only refined and honed their methods, but also brought more depth and richness to the stories they tell.
The Old Man and the Old Moon had an earlier incarnation back in their student days, as a much shorter folktale about an old man who abandons his job filling the moon with light to go on a journey to find his lost wife. The current version, developed with director Stuart Carden (also a CMU alum), takes the spine of that story and weaves around it ideas and insights that seem wise beyond these young men’s years. The result is an slyly funny and surprisingly poignant story about the far end of life, when duty and obligation have settled in where passion once reigned, and when habit, routine, and the long span of time have dimmed the memory of youthful promises. It’s also a story about the enchanting power of stories themselves: about how stories, and memories, can bring lost promises and destinies back to life.
The fable begins when the Old Man’s wife (Alex Falberg) heeds a call of adventure that only she can hear, and sets off on a boat alone to the west. Distraught by her disappearance, the Old Man follows after her, leaving the moon to slowly leak out its light in his absence. His quest takes him on a journey full of quirky characters and unexpected encounters, none of which I’ll spoil for you here; suffice it to say that, as in any hero’s journey, the challenges he encounters are ultimately transformative. The story is told through a combination of narration (Matt Nuernberger), movement, acting, puppetry, foley effects, and song, with members of the ensemble providing all of the live music accompaniment on an impressive array of instruments, including, at any given moment, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, piano, violin, drum, accordion, hammer dulcimer, and homemade xylophone. The story is set in a vaguely Northern-Anglo-coastal locale – could be northern England, or Ireland, or Nova Scotia – and the music is appropriately Celtic in derivation, with driving rhythms and earthy harmonies that blend and intertwine the seven voices to create a sonic landscape that invokes the “once upon a time” world of folklore and fantasy.
The craft on display here is exquisite – the PigPen actors are fine musicians and vocalists (they also perform regularly in clubs as a band) and they slip in and out of character with quick, decisive strokes. Much of the delight of The Old Man and the Old Moon as theater comes from the speed and dispatch with which they metamorphose the space and shuffle the story right before your eyes: the aesthetic is not one of seamless perfection, but of a DIY, show-the-wires playfulness. Hence, we see all the unmasked walls of the City Theatre space exposed behind the wooden platforms that make up the set, and the entire grid is visible, with homemade lighting instruments hanging seemingly willy-nilly from the ceiling. Costumes, likewise, are gestural rather than exhaustive in detail: a tie here, a scarf there conjures a new character into being; in one scene, bowler hats and black jackets transform Falberg and Shahi into a pair of Jules Verne-like engineer-explorers. Ships form instantly with a rearrangement of bodies; a shop door materializes out of three planks of wood; umbrellas turn into cannons and swords; ominous amplified groans establish the belly of the fish where the Old Man meets up with a legendary seafarer (Ben Ferguson) – through their ingenious manipulation of objects and materials the PigPen boys summon a joyful spirit of make believe and infect the audience with childlike delight and wonder at what the imagination can conjure.
But as charming as the wizardry of their puppetry and sound effects are, the real source of enchantment in The Old Man and the Old Moon comes from its keen insight into the human heart. A quiet pause toward the end of the play, when the wife smiles with knowing satisfaction at the Old Man’s recall of his promise to take her on an adventure, says everything you need to know about the deep affection that holds a couple together over a lifetime. That may be the show’s most magical moment of all.