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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Old Man and the Old Moon

Or: Gifts from the City of Light

I never knew in all my life how important light was until this evening. (I mean in an artistic sense. I’ve always been very grateful for sight and photosynthesis and things like that). But in the driftwood world that Pigpen Theater Co. and the Writers Theater have founded Light is king, both in story and out. And if Light is king then Music is it’s favorite courtier. Strangers from a cold world, we, the audience, were welcomed by the company with a rollicking indi-folk ballad. This life line of sound helped us wind our way through the twisty bends of the story they set us down, and though freshly composed, there was something in its celtic beat and plaintiveness that awakened an ancient eagerness, the desire to be enthralled in words, to gobble down the images of a first rate teller.

A long time ago, in a world not too terribly different from our own there lived an Old Man (Ryan Melia) and an Old Woman (Alex Falberg). The Old Man’s job was to take care of the moon and keep her full; for there was a leak in her bottom through which her light dribbled out, and someone had to be there to hold the bucket and pour it back in. It was the Old Woman’s job to take care of the Old Man, but one night, tired of her dreary sedentary days and chasing a half forgotten melody and a memory from long ago, she left her husband and set out to sea, sailing west towards the end of the world. The Old Man had to follow her, neglecting his duties to the moon. And falling in with a band of young lads heading off to war, the Old Man began one of the strangest and most miraculous tales you ever did hear.

Guided through by our own storyteller, Lieutenant Matheson (Matt Nuernberger) who sails for a time with the Old Man, the play is one that, as promised, “wraps you up carries you away with it”. It is a compilation of some of our oldest and most tenacious tales of voyages at sea, and the stranger voyages down the night black rivers of the soul. And it’s sheathed with, in all cases, a quite impressive Irish accent lending it a jovial, humorous, personable quality, while hiding a sharp edge behind its back.

Quite apart from being master storytellers, Pigpen company also proves themselves brilliant designers. I feel so blessed to see two productions so well versed in stage magic: first The Crownless King at The House who shrunk and expanded and brought to life their world and now Pigpen, who not only serenaded our ears but dazzled our eyes through a splendid display of shadow puppetry, that was at once complex and simplistic, sweet and soul-charging. Designers Lydia Fine and Bart Cortright have created a system that’s almost cinematic, shifting us from mental reprieve to physical peril, over thousands of leagues and years of time in the blink of an eye. And the wonder isn’t just two dimensional: there are also loads of real life puppetry, umbrella sword fights, miming, make believe, and endless ways of making the ordinary extraordinary (which is the best kind of magic there is).

As a reviewer I am faced with a tricky but wholly welcome dilemma when it comes to the cast itself: each actor is so good that I have trouble holding one up for examination. They all embody this world so fully: terrified of its two dimensional perils, fully awed by its invisible delights, dropping bits of humor, like bright coins, into our ears. Equipped with with impeccable Irish and English accents, there’s a strong resemblance to Monty Python in the proceedings: Aray Shahi and Alex Falberg in late appearing characters are very reminiscent of Cleese and Palin at their best. Ben Ferguson does a bang up job as a peculiar man in a peculiar place (to say more would ruin the story, so I shan’t) and Melia tackles the hero’s journey like a champion: irascible and selfish one minute, grounded and clear minded the next. Ah it’s a joy to watch him slip from one state to another.

The theater I like best is the one’s that make the impossible possible, which is exactly what the Old Man and the Old Moon accomplishes. Even more than that its a tapestry of the best weaves of storytelling: the impossible sea-tale, the domestic drama, the just-so story, even a very light handed environmental parable. And Light is the thread that weaves this tapestry together: light behind the curtain, light from above beside and below the stage, light shining from the efforts of those who brought it about.

What a shame that theatre is so ephemeral. Even as I left that driftwood kingdom, those thousand new species of illumination dancing in my eye, I could feel the memories, the magic, draining away, drop by drop, and knew there was no old man to catch it for me. But, wrapped up in those words and that music, my soul felt both fulfilled and full-filled, over-charged with awe, and it kept me warm all the way home.

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