by HENRY EDWARDS
In 2008, seven freshmen Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama acting majors pooled their considerable talents to create PigPen Theatre Co. Since then, they've created five theatrical events inspired by the folklore of different parts of the world.
In mid-August, New York City got its first chance to see the results of their efforts when five members of the troupe traveled to the Big Apple to present five performances of a revised version of their most recent endeavor, “PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story,” in the cabaret space of the legendary La Mama Experimental Club.
The quintet's 45-minute offering was a mere one of the whopping 197 live-action productions featured in the 14th annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). During the 16-day theatrical marathon, 5,000 performers placed their wares on display in ten downtown venues.
It would be easy to be lost in the shuffle, but PigPen wasn’t. Far from it!
Proving to be the best commercial imaginable for the benefits of an undergraduate theatrical education, the “Boys”—that’s what they call themselves in the program—Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia and Arya Shahi—thrilled audiences who rose to their feet spontaneously at the end of each show to deliver prolonged standing ovations. Not only did PigPen generate enormously positive word of mouth, but they also received a spate of rave reviews to paste in their scrapbooks.
After giving their last performance on Aug. 21, the Boys headed back to Pittsburgh to attend the first day of classes of their senior year two days later.
Before that day was over, they learned that five plays and five musicals out of the nearly 200 festival attractions had been awarded 2010 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Awards, and they had placed in the play category, sharing the honor with “The Twentieth Century Way,” “The Momentum” and “The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival.”
Of their New York performance, one critic had proclaimed in print: “Well done, lads. Come back to New York when you're finished at school. Maybe you'll teach us a thing or two.”
The scribe was going to have his way a lot sooner than he had expected when it was announced that “PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story” would be one of nearly 20 Fringe offerings that had been invited to participate in a Sept. 9–26 encore series.
At the end of the school day on Sept. 10, the troupe will head back to give an additional four weekend performances of their show at the Players Theatre.
PigPen calls "The Nightmare Story" a “Ukrainian cautionary tale.” The typical Ukrainian folk tale is a chronicle of ordeals and struggles set in a landscape comprised of vast forests and endless hills populated by ferocious animals. True to form, “The Nightmare Story” concerns a woman who is tormented by nightmares severe enough to render her comatose. In order to save her life, her only son undertakes an agonizing journey across a terrifying landscape where vicious wolves can—and do—attack indiscriminately.
What makes this tale such a thrilling theatrical adventure is PigPen’s 21st-century version of Paul Sills’ fabled Story Theatre. Equipped with a remarkably multi-faceted tool kit that includes acting, puppetry, shadow play, group movement and dance, live music and dramatic lighting effects, the performers function as combination storytellers, dramatic characters, puppeteers, on-stage technicians and balladeers, and they do it all with breathtaking ease and skill.
Utilizing flashing naked light bulbs, bits of string, rear projections, shadows, a miniature set of a town and the simplest of props, PigPen is a supreme example of low-tech theatrical splendor at its wittiest, and the results are nothing less than magical.
First-class composers and musicians, the team also performs a series of original songs that further and comment on the action and create a series of hypnotic moods. Prior to the show proper before the lights dimmed, they played a rousing Ukrainian folk music warm up set that left the audience buzzing with anticipation.
The Boys love the theater, and that love permeates their work.
As the Fringe audience filed out after the show, old-timers remarked that seeing PigPen had reminded them of the similar excitement they had experienced when they had the pleasure of seeing Blue Man Group and the Flying Karamazov Brothers for the first time.
You can't ask for better word of mouth.