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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Stage Review

In Williamstown, ‘Old Man’ is all aglow

Ryan Melia (foreground) stars as the Old Man in PigPen Theatre Company’s production of “The Old Man and the Old Moon” in Williamstown.

T Charles Erickson

Ryan Melia (foreground) stars as the Old Man in PigPen Theatre Company’s production of “The Old Man and the Old Moon” in Williamstown.

WILLIAMSTOWN — If the moon has never quite had the same aura of mystery for you since Neil Armstrong stepped on its surface 4½ decades ago, “The Old Man and the Old Moon’’ might help bring it back.

Underpinning this beguiling, family-friendly tale, which is at Williamstown Theatre Festival through Aug. 17, is the notion that the moon is a powerful, fundamentally unknowable yet intimate force with considerable sway over human affairs.

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Created and performed by PigPen Theatre Co., and heavily flavored with folk music and shadow puppetry, “The Old Man and the Old Moon’’ will be in Boston Nov. 19-23, presented by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage. It’s worth saving the dates, especially for parents looking to light a spark of creativity in their offspring.

In part, “The Old Man and the Old Moon’’ is a fable about opportunities lost and regained, and about how the force of memory pulls at us like a lunar tide. But in the hands of the PigPen troupe — seven high-spirited actor-musicians who began collaborating half a dozen years ago as freshmen at Carnegie Mellon’s drama school — it is also about the experience of making theater itself.

As with “Peter and the Starcatcher’’ and the Bristol Old Vic production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ that ArtsEmerson presented in Boston in March, “Old Man’’ deploys low-tech means toward enchanting ends. A strong sense of play meets a homemade, DIY-aesthetic in the Williamstown production, co-directed by Stuart Carden and the PigPen ensemble itself. (This is a slimmed-down, 85-minute version of the production that won acclaim in New York two years ago.) The cast members hurl themselves into the enterprise with an imaginative zeal that makes use of ordinary objects — a sheet, burlap, a length of cloth, flashlights, bottles, umbrellas — to create striking theatrical and musical effects.

That said, the tone of “Old Man’’ can be a bit twee at times, beginning with the play’s title. But overall there’s a likably big-hearted quality to the production. There are frequent flashes of verbal and visual wit, and the PigPen lads know how to tell a story. They and their director
also are adept at using music to punctuate and underscore the action, which ranges from a slow-motion cannonball sequence to scenes that approach a Keystone Kops-like frenzy.

As adventure beckons to the Old Man of the title, played by Ryan Melia, the stakes rise, the pace quickens, and the production’s tone sharpens, with crucial contributions by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel and lighting designer Bart Cortright. Dozens of ordinary light fixtures dangle above Lydia Fine’s set, which consists of a series of wooden platforms that will eventually function as a ship.

The conceptual conceit of “Old Man” — which takes place, we are told in true folktale style, “Some time ago, on the land, and on the sea’’ — is that the moon is steadily leaking light. Consequently, once the light falls to the ground below and lands in a bucket, it is the never-ending job of the Old Man to carry that bucket to the sky and refill the moon to the brim with liquid light.

Understandably, this Sisyphean chore raises tensions on the homefront, where his wife, the Old Woman (Alex Falberg) is chafing at the humdrum nature of their life. Hungering for adventure, she suddenly heads out one day to find it, undertaking a sea journey. The Old Man quickly abandons his moon-filling duties and sets out in search of her. He hitches a ride on a ship by convincing the sailors that he is a legendary naval lieutenant, a “hero of the imperial fleet,’’ who was the sole survivor of an epic battle.

Seafaring and airborne adventures ensue, including a massive storm and a glimpse at life inside a fish. Meanwhile, light is continuing to leak from the moon.

It’s a development with very significant consequences for the world the Old Man left behind and for the Old Man himself. But he eventually learns what he can — and can’t — live without.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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