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How Does The Moon Stay Bright? Home-Grown Theater Group Performs 'The Old Man And The Old Moon'

T. Charles Erickson
PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
The members of PigPen Theatre Company during a scene of their original musical play, The Old Man and the Old Moon. The show opens this weekend at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Each night, an old man that lives on a cliff fills up the moon with liquid light. He and his wife have been doing the same routine for so long, they’ve forgotten who they are and why they started filling up the moon in the first place.

One day, the wife hears a song across the ocean and leaves to find out where it’s coming from. The old man wakes up, finds his wife gone and decides to abandon his duty filling up the leaky moon to go find her.

“Then disaster befalls the earth,” said actor and singer Curtis Gillen. “Really, it’s a mythical tale of how the moon became the way it is now, waxing and waning.”

Credit Joan Marcus / PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
Pittsburgh native Curtis Gillen says the PigPen team "all discovered a love of storytelling in the simplest form" during their time studying at Carnegie Mellon University.

That’s the premise of "The Old Man and the Old Moon," a musical play by PigPen Theatre Company. It’s an original show filled with folk tunes, powerful harmonies, and shadow puppetry.

The seven-member theater company met when they were freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. It includes Pittsburgh native Gillen, Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Ben Ferguson, Dan Weschler, Matt Nuernberger, and Ryan Melia.

Gillen said the show demands imagination. Every sound is created onstage. Every prop is made out of recycled material.

“A pot and garlic crusher can be a rooster, only if you allow it to be,” Gillen said.

An audience favorite is the lovable shaggy dog, Lucy. Her face is a Clorox bottle and her body is a thick stringy mop, controlled by an actor’s hand.

Credit Joan Marcus / PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
PigPen actor Ben Ferguson, of Texas, sings during a scene from The Old Man and the Old Moon. Shadow puppetry is one technique the show uses to show the passage of time or distance a character has traveled.

The show highlights the cast’s versatility with a do-it-yourself brand of storytelling: everyone plays an instrument, takes on a character or jumps behind a sheet to puppeteer.  Artistic director Stuart Carden said the puppetry connects with the audience.

“The description I call of their work is lo-fi high-imagination,” Carden said. “So it’s like very simple things, but it activates your imagination in exceptional ways.”

Credit Jenny Anderson / PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
PigPen Theatre Company/City Theatre
Many of the effects used in The Old Man and the Old Moon are as simple as a flash light. The PigPen ensemble have a "do-it-yourself" approach to theater, including playing all their own music and creating all their own sound effects.

Carden said he enjoys the scenes that cut suddenly from human characters delivering the narrative, to a view of the shadow screen.

“That ability to go to extraordinary places in an instant using every day, very simple items like a flash light and some cardboard [creates] a real sense of wonderful play that this type of storytelling can do,” Carden said.

The ensemble has been working on "The Old Man and the Old Moon" since their CMU theater days. Carden said years ago, as a professor, he helped the guys focus the story to explore themes like duty, familiarity, and change.

“The play really addresses that quandary that we all have throughout our lives in big and small ways,” Carden said. “When do we hold onto what’s comfortable and the things that we know and routine and when do we step out into something new and why do we step out into the unknown?"

Gillen said the group’s nontraditional approach to storytelling lets them to take risks they might not have in a more classical theater setting. Even the stage looks different than in other productions.

“We struck all of the curtains, we’re taking anything away that makes it feel like you’re in a theater.”

The Old Man and the Old Moon opens Friday, Nov. 17 at the City Theatre and runs through Dec. 3. They’re also offering a shadow puppet workshop on Sunday, Nov. 26.

When they’re not onstage, PigPen Theatre Company performs as a band, and will appear at Club Café next week.

Byham Charitable Foundation is an underwriter of City Theatre, as well as 90.5 WESA. 

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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