Sunday, November 23, 2014

Italo Calvino meets Baron von Münchhausen at ArtsEmerson

Rainy-day theatre on an epic scale - the talented men of PigPen Theatre.

I know it's a bit late to be raving about The Old Man and the Old Moon (from PigPen Theatre Company at ArtsEmerson) - as at this point you'd have to dash out the door to catch the last show. Still, it deserves one last bouquet from Boston - even if this company has gathered quite a garden of praise to its bosom for this clever valentine to the art of storytelling.

It's not hard to explain the show's appeal. If you were the kind of kid who, on a rainy day, would sometimes build a makeshift theatre in the attic out of bedsheets and flashlights and some dining room chairs, then you will immediately grasp the essence of the PigPen project.  And if you weren't that kind of kid - well, more's the pity; but at least you're in for a charming surprise.

For PigPen devises rainy-day theatre on an epic scale - they conjure an endless stream of visual poetry from sheets and shadows and old bottles and cans. Their (very) tall tale is a kind of fantastical bildungsroman, with one key difference - it winds up being about a bildungsroman that didn't actually happen when it should have; and oddly, this shaggy-dog story (which eventually includes a literal shaggy dog) seems to be self-consciously telling itself as it goes along, in something like the style of Italo Calvino.

Indeed, only its lead character, the titular "Old Man," seems to be in the dark about this meta-fiction's nestled objectives.  He has spent his long life dutifully filling the moon with liquid light (it's got a slow leak, you see), and forever putting off any thought of adventure - which hasn't sat well with his wife, the aptly-named "Old Woman."  When in a fit of yearning she suddenly sets off to see the world, he of course is forced to follow - leaving the moon to drip away untended (with drastic consequences), but also sending himself down a narrative rabbit-hole toward a set of adventures at least as old as Baron von Münchhausen - and probably as old as the Bible (although of course these are the sorts of stories that never, actually, grow old).

So the Old Man soon encounters pirates and is swallowed by sea-monsters, and discovers lost cities at the end of the world, all brilliantly conjured by the multi-faceted lads of PigPen, who turn out to be not only witty actors but also talented puppeteers - and balladeers; in fact they can sing, play their own instruments, and are tireless mimes and physical comedians - it's seems there is nothing they can't do. I admit that their beaming camaraderie at first feels a bit forced, in that familiar self-congratulatory millennial way; and their hero should certainly accrue more scars than he does over the course of his travails (it seems every terror he faces reliably evaporates).

Re-telling a story that is actually re-telling itself. Photos: Joan Marcus.

But slowly you realize that the fraternal spirit of PigPen is actually the real thing - genuine fraternal spirit; and I think the troupe's sheer inventiveness - along with their affectionate camaraderie - will re-awaken a sense of theatrical magic in even the most hardened of hearts. Certainly by the end of The Old Man and the Old Moon I felt as if I'd been transported back to some childhood campfire, my hopes innocently hanging on just how the last twist in the story would turn out. So I can only imagine how its low-tech but vivid miracles might spark the imagination of an actual seven-year-old.

It goes without saying that the entire troupe is integral to the show's success  - and yes, PigPen is also a band, with serious folk and mountain music chops (and perhaps that musical partnership explains the unique atmosphere of bemused cooperation that suffuses the whole production). But I do want to single out for special praise the contributions of Ryan Melia (the Old Man), Matt Nuernberger, Alex Falberg, and Ben Ferguson to the production's poignantly witty vibe. It's rare indeed that a show this thoroughly masculine is also this thoroughly sweet. So if you're afternoon is still free, you might want to hop on the T right now . . .

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