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posted: 9/20/2013 6:00 AM

Inventive storytelling propels whimsical 'Old Man'

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  • New York-based PigPen Theatre Company brings to Glencoe's Writers Theatre the original fable "The Old Man and the Old Moon" featuring music, shadow puppetry and inventive storytelling.

      New York-based PigPen Theatre Company brings to Glencoe's Writers Theatre the original fable "The Old Man and the Old Moon" featuring music, shadow puppetry and inventive storytelling.
    Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • courtesy of Liz LaurenThe Old Man (Ryan Melia), center, and his canine companion sail to the end of the world to find the man's wife in PigPen Theatre Company's inventive "The Old Man and the Old Moon," running through November at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

      courtesy of Liz LaurenThe Old Man (Ryan Melia), center, and his canine companion sail to the end of the world to find the man's wife in PigPen Theatre Company's inventive "The Old Man and the Old Moon," running through November at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

  • courtesy of Liz LaurenThe Old Man (Ryan Melia), left, regales his fellow crew members (Curtis Gillen, left, Ben Ferguson, Matt Nuernberger and Dan Weschler) with sea tales in PigPen Theatre's enchanting, "The Old Man and The Old Moon" at Writers Theatre.

      courtesy of Liz LaurenThe Old Man (Ryan Melia), left, regales his fellow crew members (Curtis Gillen, left, Ben Ferguson, Matt Nuernberger and Dan Weschler) with sea tales in PigPen Theatre's enchanting, "The Old Man and The Old Moon" at Writers Theatre.

  • Video: Stuart Carden at Writers

 
 

PigPen Theatre Company's "The Old Man and The Old Moon" begins subtly. About five minutes before the curtain officially rises at Writers Theatre, where the New York-based ensemble debuts a revised version of its 2012 off-Broadway hit, a lone troubadour steps onto the stage, quietly strumming a guitar. One by one, other musicians join him as the lilting, rootsy, vaguely Celtic tune becomes more robust, more insistent.

It doesn't take long before the entire audience is riveted. And that's just the overture to this ingenuous, enchanting play with music created and performed by a twentysomething septet of musician/actors who met six years ago as freshman theater majors at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. That's also where they met guest lecturer Stuart Carden, Writers' associate artistic director, who shares directing credit with PigPen.

Much of the show's appeal rests with the winning combination of first-rate storytelling -- including a masterful use of shadow puppets -- and infectious Irish and folk-inspired music. Simply told and imaginatively staged, "The Old Man and The Old Moon" has a kind of organic whimsy. And one of the real joys of this show's unassuming, homespun theatricality is reflected in Lydia Fine and Bart Cortright's rough-hewn, multilevel set. It's evident in the delicate Mason jar lighting and, most notably, in an irresistible canine companion made out of a plastic milk jug and a mop.

Although rooted in myth (the story references Atlantis' lost city and the Bible's Jonah), the tall tale is wholly original. Nimbly narrated by Vernon Hills native Matt Nuernberger, it centers on The Old Man (Ryan Melia, giving substance to an otherwise two-dimensional character), whose job it is to refill the leaky moon with its spilled light. After many years, his wife (Alex Falberg), lured by a half-remembered tune, sets off one night in a boat for a long-delayed adventure in the west.

The Old Man follows. Along the way he joins sailors bound for battle and gets tossed overboard by a wave, marooned on an island, befriended by a dog and rescued by a pair of hot air balloon enthusiasts. Meanwhile, the moon goes dark, the tides surge, the land floods and the earth descends into chaos.

The plot meanders a bit. And if you're looking for profundities, you won't find them here, although the play does make clear the importance of balancing obligation and desire.

No matter, the charming storytelling, lovely tunes and earnest performances from this cast -- which also includes Dan Weschler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Arya Shahi -- make up for it.

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