They number seven, dress in vaguely old-timey outfits, appear in children’s stories and whistle while they work. But the resemblance to Snow White’s companions ends there: PigPen Theatre Co. is a group of unfairly talented, creative and happy Carnegie Mellon drama grads that has grown into a critically acclaimed children’s theater company now residing in Brooklyn. This inspired band of brothers spins a charmingly wholesome and home-spun fib for the 8+ crowd in “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” which comes to the New Victory after developing through runs at the Gym at Judson and the Williamstown Theater Festival.
The story is a modern folk tale explaining why the Earth’s satellite goes through phases rather than remain full (the moon has a leak and requires a regular fill-up of liquid light). But as folk tales do, it also comments on human foibles, observed, in this case, in the moon’s overworked caretaker and his dissatisfied wife. Her wanderlust precipitates a high-seas adventure that draws the caretaker in her wake and leaves the moon high and dry.
Even for such an epic voyage, PigPen travels light: a few wooden planks, canvas sheets and the actors themselves are pressed into countless modes of service, to create boats, shops, the interior of a giant tuna and a hot air balloon. Puppets, lights and the cast’s impressive range of musical instruments – banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion, glass harmonica, hammer dulcimer and piano – do the rest. To a man, the entire ensemble is thoroughly committed to bringing this children’s story to life and they are as charming to watch as they are gifted at song (some of the musical numbers feature also on the company’s two albums).
“The Old Man and The Old Moon” is an alternately rollicking and melancholy tale about loss, discovery, memory and the intrinsic value of knowing oneself. Shadow puppets are employed to dive into the caretaker’s mental world of doubt and wonder, one of the highlights of a show filled with many treats. The moon’s eventual disappearance also wreaks chaos on the tides, and the environment generally, causing a world-wide environmental disaster. Even when they’re pleasing the kids, PigPen scores eco-points by warning about the dangers of messing with the planet.
If the Seven Dwarfs were each reduced to a single character trait, PigPen can conjure up just about any person (or dog, or goose or fish or storm) they’d like, but the final message involves being true to oneself, something no one is ever too old to hear.