Seems Pigpen Theatre Company was artfully primitive right from the start. According to a meet-the-artists essay in the program for Pigpen’s The Old Man and the Old Moon—running now at Writers’ Theatre—the company members were freshmen at Carnegie-Mellon University when they did their first work together, a short piece about a man hunting a killer bear. The school “gave us the keys to this multi-million dollar theater with all the latest gadgetry,” Pigpenner Arya Shahi is quoted as saying, “and we made a show out of puppets and cardboard.”
A little more than six years later, the same low-tech conceit applies. Old Moon unfolds on rough wood planks. The scrims for its shadow-puppet interludes consist of plain white sheets. And some of the lights (electric, not tallow) sit in housings made of wine corks, hung from what looks like lengths of hemp rope. The seven actors affect Irish brogues and play homey music on homey instruments—banjos, hollow-body guitars, an accordion, a fiddle—although there’s also an out-of-place electric bass. Shahi is the percussionist, most often banging a tom-tom slung from his neck.
No doubt you’ve noticed the faux-naive wave that’s overtaken a segment of the arts, especially music and theater. Call it the New Innocence—or maybe the Persistent Innocence, since it’s been at least a decade in the making. No doubt a reaction to the digitization of culture (not to mention the sense that the thing we’ve been calling “progress” has turned out to be a globally warmed death trap), the trend is characterized by a nostalgic return to simple forms, journeyman skills, and a whimsical, childlike tone. Brooklyn folk is part of the New Innocence; artisanal food is its near relative, right down to the craftsman barista. Sarah Ruhl was its early avatar in the theater, though she’s moved on to subtler things.
Pigpen is heavily invested in the New Innocence and has brought a great deal of college-bred theatrical sophistication to bear on the problem of loading Old Moon up with same. They’ve succeeded, too, for the most part. This 100-minute show practically swims in simple charm at times. But the seven-man cast and their director, Stuart Carden, also allow simplicity to get confused with simplemindedness. Enjoying Old Moon ultimately depends on ignoring its disingenuousness—your awareness that it’s playing a few pegs below the actual intelligence of the people involved.
Nowhere is the confusion harder to ignore than in the narrative itself. It starts out well enough. Devised by the ensemble as a whole, Old Moon is a fable about an old couple who’ve lived a great long time in comfortable isolation. In fact, you could say they’ve lived that way since time immemorial, since they can no longer remember how they came to be who they are. One thing for sure is that they inhabit a physics-free, mythic dimension, where the moon doesn’t go through monthly phases but remains full all the time. It also seems to be constructed kind of like a water balloon. And a leaky water balloon at that: liquid light drips slowly out of a small hole in its skin. The Old Man’s job is to collect the lost light in a bucket and pour it back into the moon through an opening at the top.
It happens that the Old Man’s wife, the Old Woman, starts acting strangely. She hums an old tune neither of them can quite place. She agitates for walks to town and boating excursions. After the Old Man’s repeated refusals, she lights out on her own, sailing into the mysterious west. The Old Man follows her, and so begins an adventure that steals bits from sources ranging from the Bible to Baron von Munchhausen.
As I say, the thing is awash with charm. The shadow puppetry is endearing, the live music is rousing, the characterizations are fun. The cast display a rapport and, more, an interdependence that’s often delightful to watch, and their timing—which is critical to much of the humor—is always expert. You could do worse than to see Old Moon just for the performances.
And yet the story is practically insulting in its sloppiness—a compendium of cheap pieties, fake surprises, and murky assumptions, offered up as if whimsy were a valid and complete substitute for thinking straight. As near as I can figure, Old Moon is a tale about finding your happiness back in your own backyard. But that’s only as near as I can figure. It may be an ecological allegory, too. It violates its own premises so often, though, that it’s hard to tell. If this is innocence, it’s the sadder but wiser show for me.