Regional Reviews: San Diego
The band shows up at the beginning and the end of PigPen's latest project, The Old Man and the Old Moon, at, alliteratively enough, The Old Globe. In between is a display of youthful exuberance tempered with some smart production choices that make for a pretty polished 90 minutes of storytelling.
The tale itself is new/old: new because it reflects original writing, old because it calls upon tropes as old as the ancient Greeks, and maybe older. It starts with a fanciful premisethat the moon leaks and needs to be filled regularly with liquid light in order to survive. An old man has taken on this responsibility, neglecting pretty much everything else, including his wife, in the process. When the wife picks up and leaves suddenly, the old man takes off after her. Of course, she's left via boat, which complicates matters. The old man needs to find a boat and then figure out how to persuade its crew to go after his wife instead of to the war they were planning to fight.
Along the way, there are numerous adventures, most entailing threats to the old man and his compatriots' very survival. The dramatic origins of these threats run the gambit of classic stories, including the Odyssey and the Bible's tale of Jonah and the great beast, and yet they never really inhabit the substance of those origin tales (the beast episode comes closest). In essence, the company has created a shaggy dog story, marked by such a shaggy dog as a pivotal character in it.
And, somehow, the old man becomes a young man and then goes back to being an old man again. Oh, and the moon runs out of light, triggering the rationale for yet another thread to the tale. Write it off to youthful exuberance and it will still charm you.
What will charm you most is the way the story is told. Most of the performers play multiple roles, though they come to be identified with their most vivid character. And, ultimately, they're all still in the band, and the band provides musical accompaniment throughout. If someone's character dies or leaves the story, within a short time they're back in the band.
The tale is helped along with puppetry, mostly shadow puppets, which prove to be the most creative element of the evening. They pop up regularly, and the company doesn't much care if you can see how the illusions are being created. It's all part of the fun.
The band members surprised me with their theatrical abilities (some of them don't look as though they'd be particularly wonderful theatrical performers in the opening band sequence), but even the ones I would have thought would be relegated to accompaniment roles step up and create at least moments of vivid characterization. Youthful exuberance counts for a lot, but adult ensemble acting carries the day.
By the end, the company is back to being a band, so let me introduce them to you as a band. On guitar (lead and rhythm) are Ben Ferguson, Matt Nuernberger, and Ryan Melia (who doubles on fiddle). On banjo is Alex Falberg, and Dan Weschler plays accordion. Curtis Gillen plays bass, and Arya Shahi handles drums and other percussion, often loudly.
The creative team is an integral part of the process as well: Stuart Carden co-directs with the members of the company; Lydia Fine provides scenic elements, costumes, and puppets; Bart Cortright has designed the lighting, and Mikhail Fiksel is sound designer.
When all is said and done, I'm as curious to see PigPen Theatre Co. as a band as much as theatre performers. The band plays two Mondays at downtown's House of Blues during the show's run, so audience members who are as curious as I am can have that curiosity satisfiedfor a price, of course. Meanwhile, bring those who might appreciate youthful exuberance and any shaggy dogs you might know to see The Old Man and the Old Moon at The Old Globe.
The Old Man and the Old Moon, through June 18, 2017, nightly except Mondays, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, on The Old Globe's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets are available by calling (619) 234-5623 or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org.