PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and the Old Moon radiates joy at such a rate that you can practically feel its glow before you even get the chance to take your seat. I mean that somewhat literally. The cast roams the stage as the audience enters, silently chuckling along with all the pre-show chatter. At first, they’re pretty much invisible, but the soft, plucky riff of the acoustic guitar one of the performers is handling begins to set the tone. As people file in, another guitar joins, then drums. We don’t feel it at first, but as the audience begins to quiet, a song is beginning to take shape, until it suddenly explodes into a soaring folk anthem, and the show is begun.
My first thought leaving Southside’s spacious City Theatre was, of all things, about the mechanics of theater. The Old Man and the Old Moon‘s entire existence is predicated on the way it wears its 150 BPM heart rate on its sleeve – and it is very good at doing that – but it’s real accomplishments actually come from its storytelling intellect.
The Old Man and the Old Moon essentially has two stories to tell. The first is about a man who travels an uncharted world in pursuit of his wayward wife and a mythic past long forgotten; the second, cleverly, is about the people who tell us this story. When the intro (re: the greatest Lumineers song never written) concludes, a narrator (Matt Nuernberger) appears in its vacuum. He introduces us to the titular Old Man (Ryan Melia), who has been tasked with refilling the moon every night to ensure it remains full. He’s been doing this so long he can’t quite remember why he started in the first place. His wife (Alex Falberg), compelled by wanderlust and half-remembered purpose, sets sail in a rowboat to find herself. Distraught and utterly unprepared to face the outside world, the Old Man sets off to find her.
Our protagonist, then, is a classic folktale archetype, and while the script pulls heavily from Irish culture, I’m certain you could find him in the periphery of every legend, myth or fable the world over. Melia’s Old Man is a loose, classically put-upon guy who is nevertheless filled to the tweed cap with raw performative energy. The anachronism of his energetic physicality and his cartoon-perfect wavering vocals make for a compelling comic performance.
The rest of the cast adopt a similarly asynchronous approach to their characters. Falberg’s Old Woman is a loving Irish stereotype whose emotions bubble under her sarcastic charisma. Ben Ferguson briefly steals the show as a wide-eyed lunatic who gave up trying to escape the whale he was eaten by over a decade ago. His character largely echoes Jonah and the whale, but his performance is so casually insane he’s almost more reminiscent of that guy in every office who has visibly been there way too long.
The Old Man and the Old Moon’s primary aesthetic is a foggy woodworked dreamscape in which a dog is a mop, a bustling market is two large planks and a man holding a sign, and the moon is produced by the glow of a flashlight. Yet, the play is immersive, so much so that its patchwork landscape- the method with which it portrays the world of this gentle-hearted odyssey to us – is as rewarding as its narrative. A large-scale battle between warships happens in the play’s first act, and I found myself smiling in anticipation of seeing what PigPen was going to do with its limited toolset to accomplish such an ambitious scene.
Spoiler alert: as it turns out, this particular instance of naval combat is fought by two groups of men contorting themselves into a kind of horizontal pyramid and all shouting, and I quote, “SHIP.”
Even in these extremely good and extremely goofy moments, City Theatre’s production encourages further exploration of its themes. Our narrator, who is so explicitly excited at the notion of telling us a story that he appears in his own story so that he may tell us even more stories – and then, in the process of doing that, re-iterate how much he loves storytelling – is a reminder of why we’re sat in the theater listening to him go on in the first place. It’s not only that we like being entertained, but that the pure unadulterated joy of the art of the story, the suggestion that the world is bigger than we understand it to be, is an undying human instinct.
The Old Man and the Old Moon reminds us that the world is full of amazing stuff, and that adventure will always await those who choose to seek it. That sensation you get as a kid, huddled around a flashlight at a sleepover while your friend tells you about fighting the horrible monster he found in the woods – that innate awe and anticipation of something new – is still there if you look for it.