The audience never hears Frank, the central character in the puppet piece The Pigeoning, created by Robin Frohardt as part of HERE’s Dream Music Puppetry program, speak: just an occasional sigh or exclamation of frustration. But it’s easy to know exactly how he feels; operated by three bunraku puppeteers, Frank has such expressive physicality that one can gauge his state of mind (rapidly deteriorating for the most part) just by the droop of his head.
The only spoken dialogue in the play comes via a chipper and surreal office safety video, segments of which are shown at the very beginning. Further audio snippets from the safety manual punctuate the piece as Frank works through, and gradually becomes emotionally dependent on, the advice given in his handy training binder. (In a witty detail, each seat in the audience comes with a binder of its own so viewers can follow along.)
A bit of a neat freak, Frank is ideally primed for the advice in that binder, which advocates for tidiness in one’s space as an important safety precaution. In his drab office, Frank can control his environment. But in the world outside, there are overflowing trash bins. And circling flies.
And pigeon upon pigeon upon pigeon. Pigeons who seem more than usually interested in Frank. So by the time a pigeon is perching on his office windowsill and cooing incessantly in at him, Frank is only too ready to discover a chapter in his safety manual called “Identifying and Reporting an Interspecies Conspiracy.” And that’s where things take a further turn to the surreal. Frank begins to do countersurveillance on the pigeons, and new questions arise: Why do the pigeons seem to be sending messages in Morse code? Why, no matter what technology he uses (a Polaroid camera, a not-very-hidden movie camera, a series of hilarious pigeon decoys and disguises), can he not capture identifiable “mug shots” of the main pigeon offenders? And, above all, why is one of the pigeons wearing a deep-sea diver’s helmet?
As Frank’s mental state—or the world around him, or both—continues to spiral downward, the piece, and its puppets, become ever more visually inventive: the sight gag of a radio-controlled pigeon, or a garbage-can monster animated by blowing air, or a series of creatures that are half windblown trash and half malevolent marine animals. The ensemble of puppeteers does universally fine acting work with the puppets: even the pigeons start to emerge as distinct characters, with a preternatural knowingness in every cock of their birdy heads. Watching them watch Frank, it starts to seem like he might really be on to something. And then he starts to decipher their Morse code . . . and things really get strange.
Balanced between satire and paranoid fever dream, scored with eerie live music (composed and performed by Freddi Price), The Pigeoning, with its uncanny pigeons, its despairing central figure, and its striking visuals (not just the puppets but the props and set pieces are beautifully done, by Frohardt and Jesse Wilson) is a weird and lovely little gem that ends on an ironically triumphant note: maybe those safety videos really do prepare one for the end of the world.