A very talented band of troubadours has landed on Martha’s Vineyard briefly to stage an original outdoor show before heading on to New York City’s Fringe Festival. The PigPen Theater Company, made up of seven drama students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, are presenting, for three weekends, an original show on the outdoor stage at Featherstone Center for the Arts.
“The Mountain Song” incorporates music, shadow puppets, non-traditional puppets, and some clever use of props to present a highly entertaining rustic tale of mythical proportions. Fast-paced, wonderfully acted, and full of wit and humor, the charming show will keep the kids captivated, while delighting the adults in the audience.
The story was created specifically for the space — the sprawling green lawns of the Featherstone campus —and the show, which is set in a remote hamlet and its wilderness surroundings, incorporates the trees and fields, and gives the energetic actors ample room to play.
PigPen member Dan Weschler originally came to the Vineyard last summer to work with Island Theatre Workshop’s (ITW) Children’s Theatre Camp. His group wound up performing a show from their repertoire at the Katharine Cornell Theatre last summer. ArtFarm Enterprises’s Brooke and Brian Ditchfield were duly impressed and commissioned the troupe to come to the Vineyard to create and perform a show as part of their expanded second-season offerings. The performances are a co-production of ITW and ArtFarm.
The story, narrated by the mountain itself, follows in classic mythical fashion, a lengthy journey incorporating a handful of adventures and memorable characters of the animal, human, and superhuman variety. The protagonist of the story, played by Mr. Weschler, loses track of his beloved daughter on the eve of her wedding and takes on the seemingly impossible task of locating her. The resourceful hero uses his carpentry skills in creative ways, taking to land, water, and air, and also recruits, among others, a helpful giant and talking goose to aid in his quest.
The Paul Bunyan-style tall tales that compose the story are fun and original and the performances all top notch, but the real appeal of the show is the quick and seamless flow through various theatrical techniques. Original songs, accompanied by a variety of instruments — accordion, mandolin, electric and acoustic guitar, banjo, etc. — are performed ably by the cast, with a few stand out musicians among them, and some of the folk and country/western-tinged tunes could stand on their own as up-tempo ballads.
Shadow puppets, finger puppets, and found material props help move the action along, segueing naturally and cleverly from the live action. It’s a brilliantly choreographed piece of theater with a sense of continuous activity and a flow that could only be wrought by a group accustomed to working closely together.
The PigPen members, who are all going into their senior year at Carnegie Mellon, have been performing together since they were freshmen. They have created five original shows, all modern fables that borrow elements from a variety of cultures.
The troupe generally focuses on shadow puppets, but the outdoor daylight setting limited their use for this show. The group’s first foray into three-dimensional puppetry proved very effective. Minimalist found-object creations and odds and ends were expertly manipulated in imaginative ways, spotlighting the impressive physicality of the actors.
Considering the multiple elements involved in “The Mountain Song,” it’s hard to believe that the piece was created in just three weeks. The collaborative process obviously works well for these seven talented students who have been awarded the opportunity to participate in the annual Fringe Festival next month. They will perform five shows during the week of August 13 through 21 at the club at la Mama.
“The Mountain Song” 6 pm, Thurs.–Sat., Featherstone, Oak Bluffs. Through July 24. $12.