Transformed into what appears to be a room of curiosities, the Yard’s black-box theatre this week evokes a sense of wonder. A guitar leans against a funky metal chair, a streetlight stands in one corner, a piano is angled in the other and a lamp with no shade illuminates the stage.
But there’s a softness to the lighting that smooths what might be rougher edges of junk and turns it into a collection of life’s treasures.
It’s these gifts of life the PigPen Theatre Company celebrates in its original play, The Old Man and the Old Moon, presented this weekend and next at the Chilmark theatre.
The play tells the story of an old man whose duty it is to fill the moon each month with light when it runs low, refilling it with a bucket of liquid light from behind his house. One day his wife goes missing, and what ensues is the journey to the end of the earth to find her and the repercussions of leaving his job behind.
Yesterday was opening night; it was also, serendipitously, July’s full moon.
The freshly graduated Carnegie Mellon University students wrote the play when they were sophomores in college, but with help from the Vineyard Arts Project and ArtFarm Enterprises the all-male group has been able to take the story to another level.
This is PigPen’s third season on the Vineyard — they supported the arts project’s New Writers New Plays festival and performed another work, Mountain Song, at Featherstone last summer, after their road-test of The Old Man and the Old Moon at Katharine Cornell the year before. This summer they’ve been on the Island since the end of June, staying at the Vineyard Arts Project’s Edgartown house, and since then have been reworking and adding to the original script.
“It’s been very challenging [returning to this script] our tastes have changed,” company member Alex Falberg said on Tuesday afternoon as the group took a break from rehearsing. “Coming back to it with all the things we’ve learned from all our other shows we’ve done has been really challenging — but really exciting, and Martha’s Vineyard is the best place to do it.”
His colleague Curtis Gillen agreed that the Island setting was especially apt for polishing this story, “because it’s such an ocean, misty, foggy sort of journey.
“Especially up in Chilmark,” Mr. Gillen said. “It’s the perfect setting.”
Company member Dan Weschler described the first version as a poem and the new version as a play. Music has been added and the pace of the play has taken a different turn, luxuriating in the storytelling. Shadow and life puppets to help guide the story were crafted from materials found around the Chilmark arts colony.
Puppetry has always fascinated the group, and they so often include it in their repertoire it’s become something of a trademark for PigPen.
“When we started doing this [the company] none of us were interested in puppetry,” Arya Shahi said. “We all really like visual storytelling, and it’s very much a part of the show.”
“We all have very filmic imaginations when it comes to what we want to see on stage,” jumped in Mr. Weschler, who worked at the Island Theatre Workshop for two summers and made the connection for the company to the Vineyard.
“We give ourselves the freedom to come up with whatever we want to, and find a way to make it happen on stage,” he said, adding:
“A lot of that is shadow puppetry, creating things with whatever is on hand. Usually the audiences are willing to go along with you as long as you give them that first push.”
The puppetry adds texture and character to the plot. The cardboard cutouts are whimsical props that bring a smile to faces young and old, and the acoustic music sets a back porch, yesteryear atmosphere.
It takes teamwork to produce a show, and now that the PigPen boys are out of the structure of college they’re learning how to juggle real-world demands with a blossoming theater company. After their run on the Vineyard, the company heads to the Fringe Festival in New York city, followed by their first coproduction of an off-Broadway show in Brooklyn.
Whatever they are doing, the company shares the same vocabulary and process for collaborating, because they all went through the same classical training.
“Writing the stories to this day is just as collaborative as it was on the first day. We all have to agree on the story, we have a common idea for story, go through it and dissect the plot,” Mr. Shahi said. “All members have to agree on the story — all the characters, the plot. Over the years we’ve come to break down creation process with people leaning into their strengths.”
Music is a particular strength for some in the company, and you may find the boys performing songs from the play in unexpected places across the Island over the next two weeks. On Monday night they serenaded sunset watchers in Menemsha, Tuesday saw them playing in the courtyard at the Colonial Inn in Edgartown, and Wednesday they had a little fun at the Cinema Circus in Chilmark.
“Kids are the best. We just fool around constantly and that’s how a lot of our shows are created,” Mr. Gillen said. “We’re just goofing around and then say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ and hopefully someone else will think so too.”
The Old Man and the Old Moon is Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week and next at 8 p.m., with a free family matinee on Saturdays at 4 p.m. at the Yard, off Middle Road in Chilmark. Tickets are $25 for general seating and $15 for students and are available at dancetheyard.org. For more information call 508-645-9662.