The Old Man and The Old Moon, by Pigpen Theatre Co., directed by Stuart Carden and Pigpen Theatre Co. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Pigpen Theatre Company; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"Breakfast fish -- it's better than breakfast chicken."
Ryan Melia as The Old Man; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of theatrical presentation. A man or a woman with the ability to mesmerize, hopefully, rises from the circle of gathered folks and begins to tell a story, a fable or a myth and by the time this volunteer narrator is done the listeners have learned something, enjoyed something, and been entertained by the remarkable talents of the tale-teller. In the late 1960s Paul Sills, using improv techniques developed by his mother, theater educator Viola Spolin, created both Chicago's Second City Improv Theater Company ( ) and his own production "Story Theater" which featured Paul Sand, Richard Schaal, Melinda Dillon, Hamilton Camp, Valerie Harper, Richard Libertini, Peter Bonerz and later Linda Lavin and Alan Arkin. It played on Broadway in 1970 and it did what all good storytelling does - it mesmerized.
Now Carnegie-Mellon has produced another troupe of players who are using many of the same techniques: the Pigpen Theatre Co, seven men who act, sing and play musical instruments. They created this classic fable in New York where it played successfully in 2012 and in 2013 they took their show to Chicago and it has now moved on to the Williamstown Theatre Festival at Williams College where the simple spectacle of it would have made Paul Sills so jealous. Here his techniques have been surpassed with superb production values which only serves to heighten the theatricality of it all. Puppets, shadow puppets, ladders, platforms, musical instruments in the hands of the actors instead of in the hands of a separate band, all blend with costume pieces, exquisite lighting designed by Bart Cortright on an intricate pier-end-like set by Lydia Fine. The results of all this production is a very theatrical experience, 100 minutes or so of music, magic and mythical occurrences which send you out into the lobby at the end feeling just so good.
The cast is especially strong. According to the notes they have played together for about eight years developing their company and their process. There is such a seamlessness about it all that whatever techniques they have used it has paid off in spades.
Ryan Melia, a sprightly red-headed man, plays The Old Man. His job has been to keep the moon filled with liquid light so that it won't go out, but when his wife leaves him to pursue the source of a tune she cannot get out of her head, he abandons his work to follow her and bring her home again. Melia gets a look on his face that is almost startling it is so specific and so strong. He never overplays, which is a miracle considering the intensity he brings to the role. He understands ardency and how to make it work. Even nine rows from the edge of the stage his personal reality is a physical thing and it communicates eons of emotional outlay.
His wife is played by Alex Falberg. She wants her husband to remember things that concern her, concern them. Her decision to leave is based on the Old Man's lurching into old age and when he realizes that she has gone he begins to undergo a change into youthfulness. When he finds her again, she has also youthened and their future is secure once again. Falberg's scenes in this particular role only happen at the beginning and the end of the play but he brings a genuine emotional center to the piece. It is beautiful to watch.
Matt Neuernberger as the story-teller opens the show with a quai-Welsh accent and the company follows suit for a while and then they drift away from it, except for Melia. He has a strange naturalness about this part (one of many that he plays) that instantly sets the audience up for the pleasures and adventures to come. He feels as though telling stories, rather than acting in them, is his own natural bent. It is charming and affecting and lovely.
The other four men in the company are the equals of these three although their roles vary greatly and often. They are Dan Wechsler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Arya Shahi. All of them were students at Carnegie Mellon University and they play so well together that if they hadn't started a theater company they would have had to start a fraternity.
With the visual aid of co-director Stuart Carden who does not appear in the play but is another Carnegie character, the show has much more polish than "Story Theater" did - they appeared to be much more improvisational than does this company. There seemed to me to be a few minutes that might be cut to tighten the show a smidge, but even with those moments left in the show moves well and the only real carp in this fish-tale is the balance of music and spoken word sometimes gave the benefit to the music with a loss of clarity in the dialogue. That could be fixed.
This guest company in Williamstown is delivering wonderful theater for kids of all ages. The play's story is a good one, intriguing, complicated yet easy to follow. It will tell you why the moon waxes and wanes NOW and warm your heart with its central lovestory while bring the adventure tale to new, if wet, heights. If you can find anything it's missing, someone please let me know.
Matt Neuernberger as the Storyteller; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Alex Falberg as The Old Woman; photo: T. Charles Erickson
The Old Man and The Old Moon continues on the Nikos Stage at the '62 Center for Dance and Theater, located at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through August 17. For information and tickets call 413-597-3400 or go on line to www.wtfestival.org.