Review: “The Old Man and The Old Moon”

RECOMMENDED

Where: PinPen Theatre Co. at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Nov. 10
Tickets: $35-$70
Phone: 847-242-6000

ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Imaginative storytelling and inventive stagecraft come together in the Midwest premiere of “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” PigPen Theatre Co.’s charmingly homespun play with music at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. 

A collective of seven young men who met at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama as freshmen in 2007, PigPen first staged the completely collaborative script in New York, where they’re now based, but it’s been revised with Writers’ Associate Artistic Director Stuart Carden, who taught a class they took at school, and is co-directed by him and the ensemble.  

The show runs about 100 minutes without intermission, and although it could be trimmed and tightened a bit, that’s a minor quibble. By the finale, I was so caught up in the fable, I didn’t want it to end — even though the narrative cannily comes full circle.

The story turns on a PigPen-invented myth about the moon that ultimately explains why it waxes and wanes. Leaky from the start, it was kept full and bright by the Old Man (Ryan Melia), who collected the dripping liquid light and refilled it every day. But when his wife, the Old Woman (Alex Falberg), leaves him and heads west, seeking a change, he abandons his post to follow and find her. 

The Old Man’s adventure takes him to the sea on a ship heading into battle and into the air on a dirigible. It also includes a case of mistaken identity and variations on other myths, among them the notion of a lost city at the end of the world and the idea of a man being swallowed by a giant fish and surviving in its belly. Meanwhile, all the light is leaking out of the moon with devastating consequences for the world, since the tides no longer are controlled.

PigPen’s style is what makes the evening special. All the actors — a handsome lot —play instruments (banjo, guitar, violin, hammered dulcimer, drum), so the tale is infused with indie-folk songs and snippets, many of which have vaguely Celtic or seafaring overtones. They also make brilliant use of shadow puppetry designed by Lydia Fine (another Carnegie Mellon alum), especially to convey the Old Man’s journey and relationship, past and present, with the Old Woman. 

The cleverest component, though, is the re-purposing of found objects, most of them common household items. If you’ve never seen old wooden shoe stretchers brought to life as fish, you’ll be delighted. With what looks like a mop handle as a mast, a piece of cloth morphs into a little boat before our eyes. Some lengths of rope and more cloth make the dirigible with the piano as its base. And the way a mop head and plastic jug become Lucy, Mabelu’s (Dan Weschler) beloved and very lively companion, alone is worth the price of admission.

The performers all play multiple roles and have complementary skills, as well as great chemistry, which makes them fun to watch. Melia stands out, because his Old Man becomes increasingly complex and interesting, while Falberg is so versatile he’s completely convincing as the Old Woman in one scene and a ship’s captain in the next. 

Besides tweaking the script to cut some slow sections, the only real change I’d make to “The Old Man and The Old Moon” is to add songs in a few places I felt they were missing. The music is performed so well and contributes so much to the magic of the story, there easily could be more of it.