PigPen Theatre Co. casts spell at The Yard

PigPen Theatre is known for its unique blend of original music, inspired physicality, innovative props, and lighting effects. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In just a few years, and with only four full length shows in their repertoire, the seven recent college grad members of PigPen Theatre Co. have managed to kick open the well-fortified doors of the theater world and are in a position to break through as the latest theatrical experience phenomenon.

For the next two weekends, The Yard in Chilmark will present “The Old Man and The Old Moon” featuring PigPen’s unique blend of original music, inspired physicality, and innovative props and lighting effects, which they use to spin engaging yarns of mythical proportions.

“I’m thrilled to have them back this year,” says Brooke Hardman, founder and director of ArtFarm Enterprises, which brought the young troupe here last year along with the Vineyard Arts Project, for a residency and a lauded three-week run at Featherstone Center for the Arts. “They’re an incredibly innovative and promising group of young theater professionals. They’ve been called the future of ensemble theater, and I absolutely agree.'”

Last year the troupe came to the Island during their summer break from school. The seven young men have been performing together since their freshman year at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, in Pittsburgh. They spent their time here creating a new work, “The Mountain Song,” which they premiered at Featherstone. Immediately following their stay here, they went on to New York’s Fringe Festival and walked away with a Best of the Fest award that earned them a run at the Players Theater in New York.

This past spring the PigPen members returned to New York for a sold-out run at the Barrow Street Theater. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon in May, they headed east, playing at a number of venues around Boston before landing on the Vineyard earlier this month to live and work at the Vineyard Arts Project compound. Rave reviews have followed their performances everywhere they’ve performed.

In creating their atmospheric pieces, PigPen relies quite a bit on lighting and shadow puppetry. For their run at Featherstone last year, since they were performing outdoors under sunlight, they were restricted in these two defining elements of their performances. They learned a few new tricks to compensate — adding very clever live puppetry made from found objects, relying more on storytelling, and utilizing the sprawl of the outdoor space at Featherstone. That kind of ingenuity characterizes the PigPen genius for creating something out of nothing. As a reviewer for Newsvine.com put it, “PigPen is a supreme example of low-tech theatrical splendor at its wittiest, and the results are nothing less than magical.”

The magic this time around will benefit from the addition of a professional lighting designer who will help the troupe to further explore some unique techniques, such as using lights in bottles. “The Old Man and the Old Moon” is the first piece that the group created. They presented it here at the Katharine Cornell Theatre at the invitation of the Island Theatre Workshop two years ago. Says PigPen member Arya Shahi, “Now we want to go back to that show and see if we can do it one better. We have not touched it in about two years.” The team has spent their time here reworking the piece. Mr. Shahi says, “We’ve learned a lot. We’ve gotten better at theater making in general. Now we’re going back to a story we really loved.”

He adds, “It’s a very visual show. Its more of an experience than a story.” “The Old Man…” is a Homerian epic of a heartsick man’s extended sea journey in search of his runaway wife. As in all of PigPen’s work, the characters and adventures are witty twists on the standard stock of fables and myths. Mr. Shahi explains that although the troupe’s other full length pieces capture the feeling of the fables of specific cultures — he refers to “The Mountain Song” as “an Appalachian tall tale,” and “The Hunter and the Bear” as a “Ukrainian cautionary tale” — “The Old Man and the Old Moon” is harder to categorize. “This show doesn’t follow the culture of one area,” says Mr. Shahi. “It’s a more broad mix of influences.” Though he does describe it as a loose mixture of an Irish sea shanty and the “Odyssey,” Mr. Shahi adds, “It’s a very romantic show. It’s about a couple who meets young and grows old together. For me that’s very touching.”

PigPen’s innovative techniques — humor and spellbinding story spinning — have earned them fans of every age. Though their material is family friendly, they have discovered their work has very broad appeal. “We haven’t found a demographic yet that doesn’t like the work that we do,” says Mr. Shahi. “We’ve been very fortunate that we write these stories that are universal.”

PigPen infuses a lot of contemporary themes and humor into their work. Boston Herald reviewer Daniel Gewertz noted in his recent [archived] review, “There is magic in what PigPen has crafted. In an artistic landscape populated by trendy/cool, PigPen manages to be both heartfelt and hip.”

During their Vineyard run, the PigPen members will dash off to New York for a Barrow Street Theater production for which they wrote and will perform the music. The show, “Tales from the Faucet,” is an evening of stories by Glen Berger (Broadway veteran and co-writer of “Spider-Man – Turn off the Dark”), which will feature cast members of that show. In August the troupe will head back to the Fringe Festival and will then settle in New York, where they already have some shows lined up. However, they promise to maintain ties with the Vineyard.

Says Mr. Shahi, “We’re so grateful to ArtFarm and what they’ve done for us. They took such a big risk with us. They’ve really become friends.”

“The Old Man and The Old Moon,” 8 pm, Thurs.–Sat., July 14–23, (4 pm Sat. matinees), The Yard, Chilmark. Dancetheyard.org; 508-645-9662.