Your reaction to PigPen Theatre Company’s The Mountain Song will depend on how much whimsical Americana you can stomach at one time.
By Bill Marx
Judging by its wholesome-to-the-max The Mountain Song, the most ironic thing about the PigPen Theatre Company is its name. Made up of seven bright and energetic recent graduates of Carnegie Mellon, the troupe isn’t close to wallowing around in the mud. For its world premiere production of The Mountain Song, a tall tale set in the Appalachian Mountains, the clean cut performers start off the proceedings with an attempt to whip the audience into a folksy, everybody clap frenzy, playing bluegrass-ish tunes on a variety of instruments, accordion, electric guitar, and banjo among them. The set-up emits a creaky, retro charm: 1950’s The Kingston Trio inflated into The Kingston Seven.
Perhaps old-fashioned is chic: dedicated to creating drama that reflects the “folklore of a specific region,” PigPen garnered “top honors at last year’s NY Fringe Festival.” Your reaction to PigPen will depend on how much whimsical Americana you can stomach at one time. The Mountain Song asks that you swallow a considerable amount, to the point that the show would make a fine evening of theater for children but may try the patience of adults, at least those with a low threshold for milk-fed magical doings. At least PigPen provides some nifty, imaginative touches via puppetry, as well as a brusque running time. At just under an hour, The Mountain Song dramatizes its tearjerker of a whopper with welcome dispatch.
The yarn at hand deals with a carpenter high in the mountains who has a mute daughter. She wants to go to the big city to learn to “talk with her hands,” while dad works at making a wondrous device that will give her a voice. The girl heads off to the city, just as her father successfully creates the talking box. Time passes and the daughter sends her father a marriage invitation but neglects to tell him where the wedding celebration is to be held, sending dad into a multi-year quest through the high-altitude wilderness that involves encounters with a talking bird, a giant, a gun-totting coyote hungry for crows, and a singing, joke-telling mountain. Tall tales are not supposed to make rational sense, but I don’t know why the carpenter couldn’t have just stayed home and waited for the video of the ceremony.
PigPen livens up the fairy tale perils with shadow puppet backdrops, a giant, paper-mache head, and coat-hanger crows; the versatile cast also sings a rousing if unmemorable score, their voices and playing pleasant enough. Frankly, I could have used more of the marionettes and less country warbling—the shadow puppets are used pretty conservatively, mainly as cute backgrounds; they accent the action rather than serve as its heightened imaginative backbone.
The performances are playful (Dan Weschler’s carpenter is suitably unflappable) and sweetly tongue-in-cheek—the ensemble’s can-do spirits entertain, but the production never moves beyond standard storytelling “sincerity” to be emotionally affecting, which is a shame, given that the tale’s bittersweet ending calls for more than a cracker-barrel whoop-de-do. But the young members of PigPen appear to subsist on a diet of theatrical corn.