I've written previously about the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois -- about 30 minutes north of Chicago. This is the tiny company that began life crammed in the back of a bookstore, with just 50 seats, but would get the main theater critics from the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times to review their shows. And then they moved to a "big" venue of about 140 seats in the Glencoe Woman's Library Club (while retaining the bookstore site) -- regularly getting the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to review their productions, as well. One of their premieres, A Minister's Wife, even went on to Lincoln Center in New York. I saw a great production of the musical She Loves Me -- the next year its star, Jessie Mueller, got a Tony nomination as Best Supporting Actress for the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
The point here, despite the tiny size, I've seen several brilliant productions there -- and last night added another to the list. It was the Midwest premiere of a new play, The Old Man and the Old Moon. It's written and performed by a 7-man troupe, the PigPen Theatre Co., which began life as theater students at Carnegie-Mellon.
It's hard to describe the play fairly, but that's one of its effervescent, enthusiastic, non-stop charms. In an opening narration, we're told that "At one time, the moon was always full. Not once a month, but every single night." The play tells why that was and how things came to be the way they are now, centered around the tale of an old man who fills in the moon with light every night (because there's a leak in it), and has to go on a journey after his wife, when she takes off unexpectedly to travel across the world. Meanwhile, the moon continues to leak.
The evening begins nonchalantly, performed on a thrust stage that the audience nearly surrounds. On an affectionate set that looks sort of like the dock of an old world Louisiana bayou, a musician steps out 10 minutes before the start of the play and begins plunking quietly. Tuning up, you may think. A bit later, a guitarist joins him, and they strum a bit together, warming up perhaps. Then a fiddler and an accordion wander in. And the music slowly, subtly builds, as the audience keep chatting among themselves. But when a mandolin, drum and another guitar come by, and the rhythm picks up the pace, and the music begins to swell, the audience's attention is now palpably riveted and carried by the pulsating Celtic rhythm -- and by the time they stop, the audience is cheering.
And as they wander off to take their places, you realize that this isn't the orchestra playing backup, this is the cast! And we are into the show, having this lovely folk tale told to us, with Celtic-style songs, shadow puppetry, strobe lights, hand puppets, and all the actors playing multiple roles, performing and singing the songs, and handling most of the special effect homemade props and puppets themselves, largely in sight of the audience.
It's very episodic, not my favorite kind of storytelling, but this is done with such energy and pacing -- along with a whimsical plot, crisp structure, sly humor, and continual foreshadowing -- that it all works beautifully and joyfully, leaping from scene into scene (sometimes literally) to the point that, at the end after 100 minutes with no intermission, you're almost out of breath, despite it being such a low-key folktale at heart.
I had a few minor quibbles. The play isn't overly substantive, though there is a depth to it which grows movingly as the evening progresses. Also, I found that the lively, evocative music usually overwhelmed the singing -- however the songs tend to be more atmospheric for establishing the mood, rather than to advance the story or character, so the music generally suffices. And very near the end, I started to get every-so-lightly anxious for things to wrap up soon, since it is episodic, but you can tell clearly that you are coming to the end, which helps immeasurably, and it's still so endearing that that carries you over this slight hump, and it's all smooth sailing (again, literally...) from there, to its rollicking, thoughtful conclusion.
(I have to mention here one, personal favorite hand puppet, which also shows the involving, homemade feel of stagecraft throughout the evening -- using just a half-gallon, plastic milk bottle with its blue cap for the nose and the strands of a big mop, they create a hilarious, endearing, spot-on sheep dog.)
There are two reactions I had during the show (as it was apparent did most of the audience)-- utter pleasure at something so deeply whimsical, smart and involving, and admiration for such total, rare creativity, using theater craft to its fullest.
When I spoke briefly afterwards to some of the cast, they said it was the first time they'd played the show on a thrust stage, and agreed with me that it was an ideal venue for the play, since the audience surrounds the action and feels part of it, which is much of the show's sensibility, being narrated and all. What helps too is the intimacy of the Writers Theatre itself.
As you can tell, I quite liked The Old Man and the Old Moon. (That shall herewith be defined as -- it was great. Wonderful theater.) And little that I wrote here does its cleverness and charm justice.
Here's a video that might at least give some sense of that.
And this is a video that shows how they do one of the more clever bits of stagecraft. How when the Old Man -- who can't remember how he met his wife (nor she him) -- is far into his journey and begins to think of his wife and remember things about her. The puppetry images are superimposed inside his head.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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