Every culture has its creation myths: an accident in a void, the giant bird sent from the heavens to penetrate the earth, variations on Adam and Eve. They endure, often in a religious context, as part of a culture’s identity, not necessarily literal reports but tales that imply basic truths .
Sometimes, part of the myth is a responsibility which must be passed down through generations to keep chaos at bay. Experts say the Hopi Indians believe that they must carefully preserve certain rituals or the world will end. In Marcel Camus’ superb 1959 film Black Orpheus, the title character must play music every morning or the sun won’t rise.
The PigPen Theatre Co. – a title which probably sounded more jaunty a decade ago when these seven guys were all drama students together at Carnegie Mellon University – seems a hearty and harmonious culture, a folk-rock band which has fashioned for the stage its own mythic origin tale, The Old Man and the Old Moon, now on display at the Old Globe Theatre.
In this story of how the moon must be maintained, the subflooring is folkloric storytelling, not polished theatrics. Effects of every complexity are achieved by means of materials as humble as the driving imagination is rich.
A scrap of cardboard and a flashlight can blow minds, the band’s collective voice notes in the program, and there’s plenty of that in this show. Shadow puppets are important. A floppy mop can become an important puppet character. A plausible boat can be constructed almost instantaneously of cloth, sticks and actors. Group movement, music and a sincerely shared conviction do the rest. By the end of the show, the audience finds itself cooing fondly over the latest unlikely effect.
While Lydia Fine is credited with scenic, costumes and puppet design, the effect is that the show is done using whatever’s available and wearing whatever one put on this morning. Though Bart Cortright’s subtle lighting gives a similar impression, there’s much more technical craft in play.
The good news is that the moon, after some destructive complications, is back in sync and responsibility has been passed along. The better news is that the worn-out keeper has discovered some reassuring realities and set some good examples along the way. Is there some message for the wider culture, something about preserving nature? Maybe. Meanwhile, it’s just a story. Sort of a sea chanty, as that groupspeak in the program notes suggests. It is to be savored and enjoyed.
So these guys have worked together for 10 years now, with no dominant personality emerging and, apparently no comings or goings of personnel. Seems unlikely but not impossible. But a chief constant in theatre is change. History of ensembles suggests that few remain pristine. What happens if somebody breaks a leg? Can ways be found to keep the train moving? Hard to envision with such a tightly wound and exactly timed enterprise. (Stuart Carden helped with the staging.)
And more importantly, what happens when individual evolutions start to pull the joint resolve apart? Already, there must have been some brilliant negotiation to hold together such a bright and enthused ensemble.
In alphabetical order, they are Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi and Dan Weschler. I find it unnecessary to single out favorites. I was right there with them all after the first few moments of the show. Who I might single out for congratulations is whatever academic authority managed to choose in 2007 such a spectacularly homogenous group of freshman drama majors for Carnegie Mellon.
When not presenting The Old Man and the Old Moon or kicking around assorted projects, the group works as a band. (They have a couple of gigs booked in this area during their Globe run.) Certainly they offer a comfortable range of versatile competence – two guitars, bass, keyboards, fiddle, banjo and percussion – and they have some released recordings to prove it. (pigpentheatre.com is their site.)
I, for one, look forward to further myths.
(Continues on the Old Globe Theatre Shiley Stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 18,2017.)