Theater & art

This ‘Old Man’ is animated by troupe’s DIY aesthetic

With makeshift boat are (from left) Matt Nuernberger, Ryan Melia and Curtis Gillen in the PigPen Theatre Co.  show.
Liz Lauren
With makeshift boat are (from left) Matt Nuernberger, Ryan Melia and Curtis Gillen in the PigPen Theatre Co. show.

NEW YORK — Describing PigPen Theatre Co.’s aesthetic is not always an easy task. Ben Ferguson, one of the seven members of the troupe, likens “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” a seafaring adventure told as a fable, to “a really good production of a kid’s basement theater show or a show that you put on in your living room for your parents.”

“Yeah, we’re basically 27-year-old kids who have gotten really good at making shadow puppets with flashlights and bedsheets,” chimes in fellow ensemble company member Arya Shahi, during a conversation with Ferguson at a Manhattan park.

In fact, the folk-music-imbued play, which arrives at the Paramount Center on Wednesday in a presentation by ArtsEmerson, may just usher audiences back to a time in their childhoods when they’d put on shows, fashioning sets and props out of whatever bric-a-brac was available around the house and makeshift costumes from clothes stashed away in the backs of closets.

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A homespun, low-fi aesthetic has been a hallmark of PigPen since the group started collaborating as freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama seven years ago. To spin its yarns, the group uses DIY tools, embroidered with songs written in the indie-folk idiom of the Decemberists and Mumford & Sons. On the wooden jungle-gym-like stage, performers jump into and behind the scenes. Some play banjo, fiddle, and accordion or create handmade sound effects; others fashion increasingly elaborate shadow puppet sequences using canvas, silk, and handheld lights. A piece of burlap is transformed into the hull of a boat and a sandy island beach; an upright piano becomes the engine room of a hot-air balloon; an old shoe tree becomes a fish; a canine companion is fashioned out of mop heads and a Clorox bottle; a cluster of multicolored bottles represent a twinkling nighttime cityscape.

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Stuart Carden, the play’s co-director, first met Ferguson, Shahi, and fellow PigPen-ers Ryan Melia, Alex Falberg, Curtis Gillen, Matt Nuernberger, and Dan Weschler when he taught a class to them in college.

“The thing I thought they did so well is to take everyday, ordinary objects and use them in surprising and clever ways,” Carden said. “It’s not that any one of these moments is revolutionary. But there’s a cumulative effect — one moment after another surprises you or tickles you.”

The play is a parable about why the moon waxes and wanes. It has sprung a tiny hole, and it’s the daily task of the Old Man (played by Melia) to climb to the top of an extremely high ladder and fill it with liquid light. But when the Old Man’s restless wife, who yearns for something more than the drudgery of their daily routine, takes off in a boat one day, the Old Man abandons his duty and sets out in search of her. Along the way, the Old Man impersonates a legendary naval lieutenant, captains a ship of sailors into increasingly dangerous waters, ends up in the belly of a fish, and eventually lands in the mythic City of the Light.

“When you’re watching a show that leaves things to the imagination, you just become so much more involved in the story,” says Melia, an Acton native who performed in plays as a student at the Middlesex School in Concord. “Being able to see who’s operating a puppet doesn’t take away from the illusion. It actually makes the audience feel like they’re helping to create the story with you.”

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“The Old Man and the Old Moon” has evolved from a short play performed at a student festival at Carnegie Mellon into a full-length show further developed in productions in New York, at Writers Theatre in Chicago, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it played to acclaim last summer. The show returned for an off-Broadway run last month.

Besides the ingenuity of the show, Carden says he’s most impressed with the way the story combines a playful creation myth about why the moon waxes and wanes, “which still has some mystery to it,” with “a question that is fundamental to the human heart.”

“For most of us, we may be faced with a moment in time where we either hold on for dear life to everything we know and everything we’ve worked toward, even if we’re starting to feel a little stuck in our lives, or we take a big risk and leap into the unknown,” Carden says. “That moment of risk-taking — when we either embrace change or we hold onto the status quo — is a terrifying one.”

The show may be a fable with a G-rated appeal to children. But like Pixar films such as “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” it has the ability to resonate with a wide spectrum of audiences. Indeed, the company cites Pixar and Disney’s animated films as influences on their work.

Shahi cites the scene when the Old Man ends up in the belly of a fish, where he meets another seafaring hero.

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“All of a sudden you’re listening to a guy who abandoned his wife talk to another man whose wife abandoned him about how their marriages went sour. And the adults in the audience are looking at each other and cracking up, because they appreciate this totally different level of storytelling,” Shahi says. “And the kids love it because there’s a crazy guy running around inside a fish.”

More coverage:

Review: ‘Old Man,’ created by PigPen Theatre Co., is all aglow in Williamstown

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.