Friday, August 19, 2011


The theatrical event of the decade involved nary a singing-dancing Mormon nor a horse with a flair for a good ol' trench skirmish. You didn't have to sprint through ninety cramped hotel rooms observing dreamy images of a metaphorical Macbeth, or turn over half of your monthly rent for a single ticket…in the balcony. Actually, come to think of it, you weren't even there. That is, unless your affluence has achieved a stature unfathomable to me and my steady diet of $5 Footlongs™.
But you definitely saw it, read about it, or heard about it. Everybody did.

The Royal Wedding. Yes. Prince William, Kate Middleton, the Queen, the hymns, the grandeur, the sensationalism, and those oh-so-impractical hats! What was initially belittled by columnists as mere superficial entertainment ultimately spread much-needed feel good vibes around the globe. That’s right…The globe. The noble nuptials had a reported worldwide audience of 750 million - an astonishing feat for the wedding of two people who could best be described as enigmatic. So, why did so many people watch it? If Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s marriage had been televised, one can rightfully assume that only a handful of E!-obsessed stay-at-home moms might have TiVo’d it. Well, I have a theory…

America has, for the most part, forgotten the importance of tradition, custom, and ritual in theatre, opting instead for moment-to-precious-moment photorealistic depictions of mundane daily minutiae. This unfortunate trend was born of the correct assertion that theatre should and must be a reflection of ourselves. Tru dat, but the most effective, enduring, and entertaining reflections are always symbolic in nature. Think fireworks. Think Thanksgiving. Think baseball. Think inaugurations. Think the Eucharist. Think (Royal) Weddings: Symbols that have lived on for centuries, even millennia, and revolve around the storytelling traditions of our ancestors. Our theatre could borrow a page from the Royal Wedding: an ancient ceremony in a nearly eight hundred year old cathedral, with decidedly modern touches, but also an open-armed embrace of the past. But now, lead by a slew of reactionary, passionate, young ragamuffins, the winds are thankfully shifting in a more positive, wondrous direction; one of the most distinctive and unexpected of these being PigPen Theatre Company.

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song
is waking up audiences at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival with its unique and lively blend of oral storytelling, puppetry, and twangy tunage, together devising a devilishly modern spin on well-worn folk Americana. A favorite at last year's Fringe (with The Nightmare Story) and a burgeoning presence on the Off-Off-Broadway scene, PigPen is proving a lovingly ramshackle, yet formidable force of theatre.

The Mountain Song
is a theatrical Best of compilation of American folk-tales, legends, and myths, pieced together with PigPen’s infectious music and characteristically wiseass humor. Impressively the boys all play their own instruments and sing with individual chutzpa, but blend with graceful ease. While their songs are performed with pomposity by the group, the transcendent moments all belong to Ryan Melia. Melia’s voice hovers, fog-like, with haunting solemnity, recalling an unshakable past while wandering around with child-like innocence. A segue involving a trio of foreboding crows was accompanied by Melia’s simple wordless vocalizing. The chilling sequence raised my shoulders and widened my eyes.

The plot, a father searching for his daughter’s wedding at the end of one of three rivers, aims not to shock, impress, or coerce, but delight, entertain, and fulfill. Which it does really, really well. The craziness that happens onstage is a hell of a lot of fun. And like the myth and custom-based plays of William Shakespeare, it’s not about where you’re going; it’s how you get there.

PigPen is an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. Made up of seven collaborators (Arya Shahi, Ben Ferguson, Dan Weschler, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen, and Alex Falberg. Matt Nuernberger is acting at Williamstown Theatre Festival), all of their creation, play, and performance is done in tandem. That might perhaps come across as common, but the word “ensemble” is haphazardly thrown around a lot these days. In theatre ensembles around the country, often an "ensemble member" will appear in a production with "ensemble non-members."


At the risk of losing more than half my readership…

Imagine, if you will, a football game.

“At today's game, the running back will be a Bears team member, but the rest of the team will be made up of perfectly adequate freelance players who have never been on the field together.”

What?! That is ridiculous! What’s a running back?...

Well, it’s a far too frequently unearthed model for many longstanding theatre companies: ensemble members as selling-points, rather than integral collaborators.

PigPen does it right though, and it pays off big time. The performers’ awareness of themselves, their brethren, and their audience is palpably felt, creating a warm sense of comfort, and bringing us observers around a campfire or down to Grandpa’s basement for a story. Being in-tune with their cohorts' bodies and presences also enables them to paint a slew of intoxicating images, many of which come as a complete and welcomed surprises. Broadway productions spend millions upon millions of dollars to achieve the effect garnered here by moving two fingers across a piece of brown fabric. Just sayin'.

Having seen The Mountain Song last summer at Irondale Center in Brooklyn, I can reliably say that little of the literal content of the play has changed, however, to the benefit of the audience, it has grown powerful roots of empathy, elevating what was fun to what is profound. Whether this growth came from extended gestation, the benefit of a smaller, tighter space, or a mixture of the two, I cannot say. But it speaks to their cohesion as a company, that what once was good is now extraordinary…one might say, mountainous.-Johnny Oleksinski

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song peforms as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the 4th Street Theatre September 18th @ 6:30 22nd @ 7:15 25th @ 10:00 26th @ 3:45 27th @ 12:00.