By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When you watch PigPen Theatre's The Old Man and The Old Moon, you watch an aesthetic being born.
The company has been emerging since 2010, thanks to successful runs of their early, one-act plays at FringeNYC and off-Off Broadway spaces like the Irondale Arts Center. Now, however, they're nestled at The Gym at Judson with an eight week run of their first full-length show, which lets them clarify their artistic identity and lets a much bigger audience understand why they're a company to watch.
Here are the basics: The core members of PigPen are seven young men who recently graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Their shows invent new folk tales that feel old, as though someone's grandfather has been telling them for generations and PigPen finally got around to staging them.
The Old Man and the Old Moon explains why the moon waxes and wanes: We follow the quest of the moon's caretaker as he looks for his missing wife, meets a variety of quirky friends, and eventually returns to the job he left behind. To tell his story, the performers blend physical comedy, original folk music, and puppetry. A dog might be a puppet made of mop heads, and a sequence about the Old Man's imagination might involve sophisticated shadow play, where elegant cut-outs let us see fantastic creatures inside his mind.
These various elements cohere because of PigPen's democratic creative process. "Everyone has their strengths," says company member Matt Nuernberger. "Some people write more songs, and some people think more visually. But everybody does a little bit of everything. Somebody will have a half-finished idea and bring it to the group, and someone else will either change the idea or add to it."
Dan Weschler, for instance, is the troupe's primary playwright. While everyone might devise a basic story together, he's the one who turns it into a script. "It's all done together until it comes to dialogue," says Ryan Melia, the company's lead songwriter. "Then it's all up to Dan. He just knows, 'This is the rhythm. These are the words these people would use.'"
The company says their drama school training helped them work this way. "We learned these basic principles of giving and taking," explains Alex Falberg. "Those principles have leaked into how we function, whether it be 'Who's directing this moment?' or 'Who's writing this song?'"
Delegating responsibility also helps the company manage its ambition. Along with plays, they've recorded an album of their original music and created several short films that showcase their puppetry.
But that's not to say PigPen has figured everything out. They freely admit that creating The Old Man and the Old Moon show has taught them how much they can learn about playwriting, timing, and sustaining a story. Weschler says, "This is a longer show than anything we've done before, and that was a big concern: Can we stretch this out? We don't want it to be too thin."
Nuernberger adds, "Working on this production has been helpful in terms of making us say, 'Oh, we need to follow the structure of a play a little bit more.' But at the same time, it's also encouraged us to say, 'Oh, this is also a PigPen show.' And people do respond to maybe not knowing what's literally going on, but they're watching a compelling image that's doing a different kind of storytelling."
As the company learns to trust its visual approach, it's also learning how audiences respond to its blend of comedy and sincerity. On stage, the performers seem like a troupe of clowns who keep interrupting their own story with mischief and jokes, and that creates a fascinating tension between beauty and buffoonery.
"To me, it makes this simple storytelling complex," says Nuernberger. "You can have a complex emotion as an audience member, even if it's this simple, storybook journey. In any life, humor comes up all the time, so to me, it seems more real."
However, adds Arya Shahi, "One of the biggest things we did in previews was cut a ton of jokes. We realized, 'Guys, it's not fitting.' We can keep the ones that we really think are the best moments, but this is more of a romantic story than we thought it was. So let's honor that."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus