Certain experiences should be visceral, like eating steak, listening to blues, or watching plays. I can’t offer advice regarding the first two, but if you like deeply impassioned work, then PigPen Theatre Company is for you.
The Old Man and the Old Moon (2012), at City Theatre, is called a musical folk tale, but the performance comes off like a funky amalgam of The Band, Monty Python and what might be coined “steampunk puppetry.” One can’t really describe the result, but if you appreciate these genres, you’ll love this show.
The New York City-based PigPen troupe was formed by seven Carnegie Mellon School of Drama grads a decade ago. They write, act, sing, and all play instruments — including guitar, banjo, violin, accordion and drums — as well as a lot of crazy stuff like bottle xylophones. They also co-directed this unique show with fellow CMU alum Stuart Carden.
The production resembles group therapy for a bunch of 19th-century hippie longshoremen who really can’t decide if they’re staging a musical or a drama. It’s truly both things, but the musical parts come off as stronger, and deliver more energy. The fantastical story — about an old man in charge of lighting the moon — is derived from Irish folk tales, the Odyssey, the Jonah myth and other classical sources. It’s occasionally belabored with flat dialogue. But the compositional elements are so alive you feel the players might just break into blossom, like a James Wright epiphany.
The shadow-puppet scenes — mini plays within the play — are mesmerizing, as are the sound effects, which are executed with a kind of raw, Foley magic. You see both being done, but you don’t know how.
If this sounds a bit like children’s theater, it unabashedly is, and darn it, what better way to experience a little mystical thrill, which is sadly so often missing from conventional theater these days?
By the way, this is billed as a family-friendly show, so by all means bring the kids. And take the grandparents, too, who will enjoy it just as much. The two who sat behind me certainly did. As did everyone in the audience.