A little over two years ago, I wrote here about a tremendous production at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, of a new play, The Old Man and the Old Moon, put on by the PigPen Theatre Company. The Writers Theatre almost never puts on outside productions, but they made an exception in the case of this, and it was well-justified. The PigPen group of seven who act, write, and compose and perform their songs is wildly inventive and ethereally creative, using stagecraft to its fullest. It encompassed Celtic-style songs, shadow puppetry, strobe lights, homemade props, hand puppets, and all the actors playing multiple roles, performing the songs, and handling most of the special effect props and puppets themselves, largely in sight of the audience. (Check out the link above for a couple videos of the show, including a behind-the-scenes look.)
If you have seen either War Horse or (even more closely) Peter and the Starcatcher, PigPen Theatre Company's sense of theatricality is in the same tradition.
The troupe has a new production, a world premiere, in fact, which the Writers Theatre has again brought them in for, and the group agreed to despite interest from others in going directly to Broadway. This time around it's called The Hunter and the Bear.
Once again, they've done a vibrant, magical, wonderful job. I preferred their first show, but still loved the new one which is a bit darker, with a bit less whimsy -- but there's still a whole lot of whimsy. The ghost story follows a group of explorers who've made their way into the woods of the Pacific Northwest to build a new community before bringing out their families and others.
It's a folktale of sorts, filled with old-timey folk songs and all sorts of theatrical magic. As before, the show begins quietly, with one company members noodling around on his guitar, joined soon by another musician, then another, and before you know it, if you weren't paying attention, they're in the midst of a rousing, pounding song that grips the audience. (The Writers Theatre "large" stage is a perfect environment for this. Only a couple hundred seats or so, three-quarters of it surrounding the action in an intimate environment.)
The show proper opens with a lovely bit of PigPen stagecraft, a lone man in a dark stage, lighting a campfire of wet branches, while explaining that he's going to tell a ghost story. But it's the lighting of the fire that's a joy. He holds a small flashlight while waving his fingers above it to create a sense of flickering -- as the other troupe members stand above crinkling paper and snapping their fingers to give the sound of the fire popping. It's so simple and so effecting, and after the rousing song, the audience is thoroughly involved.
The story is a bit disjointed, but fits the folktale sensibility well enough, having to do with the effort to build the settlement, as a stranger enters their midst, someone goes missing amid reports of smoke-ghosts, marauding giant bears and past demons. The performers are all wonderful (not just their acting, but roaming the stage playing instruments and singing)...and one would be remiss for not mentioning an eighth "member," a lovely portrayal by a very cleverly-performed little boy puppet.
The response from the sold-out crowd was enthusiastic, and the run was extended -- and probably would have been extended even longer if the PigPen Theatre Company didn't have to move on, and the Writers Theatre had other obligications.
No good videos of the show exist yet, but here's a trailer of the show, that doesn't come even close to doing it justice. Though at the 44-second mark you can at least get a glimpse of the campfire scene I was referring to.
Here's a bonus video. It's not of the production per se, but one of the show's songs. My guess is that in promoting it, the group went to classical radio station WFMT in Chicago and as part of their appearance sang a few of the numbers.
Though there are quite a few songs in The Hunter and the Bear, it really isn't a traditional musical. The songs don't especially stand out, but a significant part of the atmosphere. They're very good, just not songs you tend to leave the theater singing. This is "One of a Kind."
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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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