PigPen Theatre Company knows not to show its cards. At least not all of them, and definitely not all at once.
Their gamble pays off in "The Hunter and the Bear," an emotional, whimsically theatrical ghost story in its world premiere at Writers Theatre.
"The Hunter and the Bear"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 22. Also 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21, and Jan. 18. No performances Dec. 24, 25, 31 and Jan. 1. No 6 p.m. show Jan. 22.
Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Street parking available
Rating: Teens and older, some images may upset young children
When it comes to telling tales, this impressive group of actors, writers, puppeteers and multi-instrumentalists -- who met as freshman nearly a decade ago at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon School of Drama -- understand the value of restraint.
"There is nothing more interesting than something that is just out of sight," said company member and Vernon Hills native Matt Nuernberger, who described the group's philosophy during a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in 2013.
"The Hunter and the Bear," written by ensemble members who also composed the play's roots-rock score, reflects PigPen's approach.
Company members co-direct the play with former Writers associate artistic director Stuart Carden. Together, they do a fine job suggesting the menace at the heart of this cautionary folk tale about men haunted by loss, who are forced to confront their grief and acknowledge their mistakes.
That menace -- the bear of the title -- waits just beyond the perimeter of a turn-of-the-20th century Pacific Northwest logging camp. It's hinted at during the musical prelude, which begins innocuously with a couple of actors noodling on a guitar and banjo. More musicians join in. The music swells, becoming more muscular, more insistent, more foreboding. As it crescendos, the action commences on an ominous note.
Lewis (Dan Weschler) hunches over a fire, recounting a story about loggers (Alex Falberg, Curtis Gillen, Nuernberger and Arya Shahi) attempting to clear a mountain devastated decades earlier by a wildfire. According to Lewis, the ghosts of the humans and animals the fire consumed haunt the mountain. That intrigues Elliot (operated with pluck and humor by actor/puppeteer Ryan Melia), the precocious young son of hunter Tobias (a convincingly tormented Ben Ferguson).
After Elliot goes missing, the men organize a search party to track the black bear they believe has spirited him away. To reveal any more would give away the rest of the tale, which incorporates puppets (shadow and otherwise) and unfolds on Collette Pollard's evocative, multilevel set, which suggests nature's grandeur as well as its terror.
Pollard's work, and that of costume and puppet designer Lydia Fine, lighting designer Bart Cortright and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel demonstrate that a tale well-told doesn't require flashy effects to set a mood or convey a message.
Ultimately, what sells this story are the honest, unvarnished performances of the cast and the simple, superb storytelling. And if a few of the narrative threads occasionally fray, it's not enough to unravel this absorbing tale, which marks the conclusion of a banner year for the Glencoe theater.