The shaggiest dog you'll ever see makes a late entrance in PigPen Theater Company 's enchanted " The Old Man and the Old Moon ," at the New Victory Theater. It's a highly companionable creature who resembles (and, in fact, may be) an animated white bath mat. But it isn't there just to charm us.
This bounding, bouncing quadruped serves an important plot function, one that pulls tighter some of the many loose threads that have been hanging from a very wide woof. (You should pardon the term.) This shaggy dog, you see, is both the mascot and embodiment of a great big old shaggy dog story.
Like puns, shaggy dog stories — which assemble piles of improbabilities into outlandish towers — are generally regarded as the literary province of childish minds. But the PigPen troupe , a consortium of shaggy young men who met as freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University seven years ago, asks us to appreciate the finer arts of wild storytelling, while speaking to the childish mind in all of us.
First performed in New York two years ago, when it was acclaimed by my colleague Ken Jaworowski, "The Old Man and the Old Moon" has since undergone a makeover of sorts, shedding some weight and smoothing some calluses for a production seen over the summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival. But it retains the illusion of a willfully unwieldy beast, which is essential to its appeal.
The plot suggests what Baron Munchausen , that most outlandish of tall-tale tellers, might have come up with had he been an Irishman — and given the run of a pub stocked with down-home musical instruments. An old man (played by Ryan Melia), whose job is to keep the moon filled with light, abandons his post to look for his restless wife (Alex Falberg), who's gone a-roaming.
She is herself following some half-remembered melody that keeps pulling her farther and farther westward across stormy seas. When the old man goes in search of her, the moon goes dark, and the planet goes berserk.
This is a story of time and tides and quests, the sort of fable on which mythologies and religions are founded. Our old man winds up in the belly of a giant fish (see: the book of Jonah), where he discovers an old soldier hero who was long ago given up for lost at sea (see: "The Odyssey").
Directed (with the troupe) by Stuart Carden, the cast of seven (which also includes Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Arya Shahi) plays a varied assortment of instruments as well as characters. Music, of a Celtic lilt and hillbilly rowdiness, figures both prominently and subliminally, and is rendered on keyboards, banjos, fiddles and glass harmonicas.
At times, the show brings to mind a group of lads sitting down to a campfire hootenanny with the mutually attuned synchronicity that comes only with long acquaintance. Designed by Lydia Fine (set, costumes and puppets), Bart Cortright (lighting) and Mikhail Fiksel (sound), the production comes up with an eye-popping series of special effects that are all the more delightful for betraying their homemade origins.
Hand-held shadow puppets loom large against bedsheets, and flashlights and illuminated bottles become emblems of otherworldly luminousness. The actors configure themselves convincingly into the forms of ships and dinghies and dirigibles. And with the well-honed instincts of longtime yarn spinners, they know exactly when to spring another surprise to jerk us back into focus whenever our attention wanders.
And wander it will, occasionally, just like the old man who meanders through the realms of legend. If this production were tighter, it would lose its captivating sense of being invented on the spot.
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