In its quest to bring new plays to the Chicago area, Writers Theatre in Glencoe serves up “The Old Man and the Old Moon.” It arrives hot off the computers of the seven young men who founded PigPen Theatre Co. as sophomores in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama: Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi and Dan Weschler.
The appealing septet collaboratively writes and performs its multimedia blend of storytelling, music and shadow puppetry with the goal of having each contribute equally to the mix. “All seven members of the company participate in every aspect of the creative process,” explains Writers Theatre associate artistic director Stuart Carden. Carden directs the play and mentored the seven back when they were teenagers in his directing class at Carnegie Mellon.
The troupe uses Google share software to create scripts. “So you’ll be in the room with all seven guys on seven different laptops,” says Carden, “but they are editing, updating, and writing the same script while also passionately arguing about what is being written.”
Artistic liberty, equality and fraternity are worthy — and probably unattainable — goals. But how do they affect the finished product? In the case of “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” the power of the group creates some extraordinary moments — the charming shadow puppetry and Celtic inflected music come to mind — but satisfies less in other areas, like the writing.
Writing by committee has earned a bad rep for a good reason. As talented as the PigPen players are, their communal voice lacks the urgency of a single, driven writer. Even this “newly improved version” of “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” tweaked for its Midwest premiere, has moments that fall flat. The obvious solution might be judicious cutting.
The writers deserve credit for attempting something on the order of mythic resonance. The story centers on the Old Man of the title (Melia), who holds the Sisyphean job of moon tender, responsible for refilling the leaky orb as its light trickles out each night. The Old Man is impelled on a voyage of discovery when his wife, the Old Woman (Falberg in a babushka), takes off in pursuit of adventure.
At times that new mythology succeeds, conjuring up Plato’s cave allegory in its allusions to light and perception. At other times it is less successful, veering dangerously close to making the audience feel like parents at a school production — albeit one where the offspring are genuinely talented. Fortunately, the players don’t take themselves too seriously —they truly seem to be playing — so it would seem curmudgeonly to fault them for attempting something epic.
All seven are talented performers and instrumentalists, especially Shahi on percussion and Weschler on accordion. All are good enough singers too (Gillen is a standout), and their combined voices make for a pleasing blend. The highlights of the show are their creative bits of stage business: a concert on water-filled bottles; a sailing ship conjured up from jetsam and flotsam; and those shadow puppets, so engaging that they would have made Plato’s cave dwellers content to remain inside.
“The Old Man and the Old Moon”
Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Through Nov. 30, 2013
1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $35-$70 at 847-242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Photos: Richard Hein