Theater Review: “The Old Man and The Old Moon” — An Old Story, Entertainingly Told

The Old Man and The Old Moon is pleasing, but just how theatrically satisfying it is depends on the appeal of ‘magical’ folktales, the kind where anything goes.

The Old Man and The Old Moon, A Play with Music. By PigPen Theatre Company. Directed by Stuart Carden & Pigpen Theatre Co. Set and costumes by Lydia Fine. The Williamstown Theatre Festival production presented by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson/Paramount Center Main Stage, Boston, MA, through November 23.

Curtis Gillen, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi,Ryan Melia, Ben Ferguson, Dan Weschler Photo: Liz Lauren

PigPen Theatre Co. in “The Old Man and The Old Moon”: Curtis Gillen, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, Ryan Melia, Ben Ferguson, and Dan Weschler. Photo: Liz Lauren.

By Bill Marx

PigPen Theatre Company whips up a diverting, if somewhat thin, mythical mash-up of hootenanny and fairy tale in its latest show, The Old Man and The Old Moon. The production displays considerable artistic growth from the last staging of the troupe’s I reviewed, the world premiere of The Mountain Song, which was presented by Boston’s Company One in 2011. Featuring the seven frisky company members (bright and energetic graduates of Carnegie Mellon), the hourlong piece was stuffed to the choking point with gooey Americana, including an attempt to whip up the audience into a folksy, everybody-clap frenzy before the play had even begun. I felt at the time that PigPen Theatre Co. was trying to lean, too heavily, on making hay out of a creaky, retro charm: 1950′s The Kingston Trio inflated into The Kingston Seven.

PigPen still has problems dealing with sex and death (more on that later), but The Old Man and The Old Moon represents a considerable improvement over the earlier piece: longer, grittier (at least around the edges), and more substantial. The music, played via banjos, guitars, drums, bottles, etc., adds some welcome melancholic zip to the group’s trademark countrified stomp, and the storyline, while it adheres like glue to Joseph Campbell’s hallowed archetype (or is that stale formula?) of the male hero on a moral quest high and low, moves along with lighthearted and deft efficiency. The shadow puppets look great and this time around they play more of a dramatic role in the proceedings – in the earlier production they were essentially treated as pictorial accents, theatrical snacks. That said, given their high quality, I would like to see the puppets get even more stage time. The PigPen-eers (Curtis Gillen, Alex Falberg, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, Ryan Melia, Ben Ferguson, and Dan Weschler) have aged a bit; their less puppy dog-ish looks give their performances more heft. And this time around the humor contains flickers of bite, though the group’s earlier tendency towards coyness and an urge to flog punchlines remains.

So The Old Man and The Old Moon is entertaining, but just how theatrically satisfying it is depends on the appeal of ‘magical’ folktales, the kind where anything goes when it comes to immortal, cartoon figures who are beset with personal problems in a timeless land far, far away. In this case, the Old Man of the title is in charge of filling the moon up with light — it has a slow leak and he is charged (by himself, apparently — where is the boss?) to keep the orb full to the brim. His beloved wife (Old Lady?) recalls a promise (signified by a tune) of adventuring made early in their relationship and takes off on a boat. The Old Man abandons his post to bring her back home and gets into a lot of trouble once he sets out to sea — fighting in a war, grappling with flying killer sharks, stuck in the belly of a whale, hurling himself out of a dirigible, dehydrated on a desert island, wandering though the Land of Liquid Light. Meanwhile, the moon has gone completely dark, creating chaos on earth: the tides are going every which way. A lesson about the inevitability of change is learned by the end. All of this elemental zig-zagging is handled with a whimsical but somewhat flat earnestness: nothing is very painful for too long.

Matt Nuernberger, Ryan Melia and Curtis Gillen. Photo: Liz Lauren

Cast members of “The Old Man and The Old Moon”: Matt Nuernberger, Ryan Melia, and Curtis Gillen. Photo: Liz Lauren.

In her program notes, HowlRound’s Polly Carl usefully mentions Italo Calvino and his Modernist tweaking of folklore and fairy tales, but the Italian writer played much more self-consciously (and surrealistically) with their matter and form. (Those wishing to enjoy his genius should check out the recently published volume The Complete Cosmicomics, which for the first time in the US contains translations of all of Calvino’s stories in the series.) PigPen Theatre Co. despite its down-and-dirty name, never really dares to muss the standard message up. Nothing particularly surprising or all that upsetting happens as the archetypes slide cleanly by, the Action Old Man giving way to the Laid-back Old Man. The conservative downside is that there is, as with a lot of folklore and fairy tales, plenty of sexism. Not only don’t we feel the supposedly enduring love between the Old Man and his wife (the tale’s male bonding is much stronger), but her journey is reduced to being a mere catalyst. Don’t we care at least a bit about what happened to that aged woman in her boat?

And, since this Old Man has the physical resilience to survive jumping out of a hot air balloon in mid-flight, shouldn’t he do more than have a sip a cup of tea when he is re-united with his dear wife? In a Greek myth, things would have gotten downright naughty during the passionate homecoming. But that is not PigPen’s homey style — folklore for them is strictly PG. Finally, along with sex comes death, but it is damned hard to tell what change (i.e. leaving the job) means for the Old Man and his wife – oblivion? Or are we talking a well-earned retirement vacationing on the high seas?

As you can tell, I believe theater is more about intractable conflict than life affirming yarn-spinning. But PigPen Theatre Co. is developing a distinctive and lively style and its talented members will continue to mature as they (hopefully) let go of the comfy hand-rails of Americana and neat-as-pins allegory. Doing homage to the wonder of fairy tales and folklore doesn’t call for sticking to the primal script; it means taking on the riskier challenge of imaginative transformation.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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