These two shorter stage shows were paired during their runs last week at this Pittsburgh Cultural Trust festival, and with good reason. Both employed puppetry and a similar multimedia esthetic, but ultimately came down to live performers and emotional resonance.
More impressive than the shows’ resemblances, however, was the way they complemented each other in mood and theme.
The Pigeoning told the story of a middle-aged big-city office worker whose obsessive-compulsive fixation on cleanliness and order lead him to believe that there’s a conspiracy against him … by pigeons. “Frank” was a yard-high, bunraku-style puppet operated by three puppeteers in black masks; other puppeteers operated the pigeons and other creatures that were the only other characters.
The world-premiere show, created by New York-based artist Robin Frohardt, was staged in the Bricolage Theater space and was remarkable for its inventiveness with found materials: Think pizza-box manta ray. The puppetry was exceptional, not only in the eloquence of poor Frank’s gestures but in the amusing realism of the pigeons and, perhaps especially, in a darkly humorous dream sequence that showed off the crew’s facility with low-tech special effects.
And just when you thought the show might get a bit heavy-handed, the story took an hallucinatory turn and ended up in a place you didn’t expect, its point pleasingly ambiguous but its gentle humor intact.
After that early show, much of the sold-out crowd strolled down Liberty Avenue, to the Trust Arts Education Center, for Perth (Australia) Theater Company’s It’s Dark Outside.
This show, receiving its U.S. premiere, was built around human characters who were sometimes represented by puppets, or by silhouettes behind a scrim. Both Pigeoning and Dark depict odysseys of sorts. But where Pigeoning made amusing use of an instructional-film spoof, and slide projections, Dark deployed breathtaking projected animations on a wall-sized upstage screen.
The show’s unnamed protagonist was an elderly man (played by actor Arielle Gray, in a rubber mask) who walks off into the desert. (Press materials say the show’s about Sundowner’s Syndrome, a compulsion to wander that affects some Alzheimer’s sufferers.) He’s pursued by a menacing figure in a duster-style coat who recalls Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
It’s Dark Outside too includes a surprise twist, one that’s both deeply moving and meshes seamlessly with the show’s physical world, blending the “real” with such fanciful elements as a pup tent that acts pretty much like a pup, and a miniature puppet version of the protagonist who acts out his doppelganger’s dreams. Standing ovations in Pittsburgh are all too common, but this one was well-deserved.
Both these shows were sold out well in advance, and their run ended Saturday. The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts continues with a dance-theater show by Zimmermann and dePerrot this week, and the interactive theater work Measure Back, next week. Look for previews of both in Wednesday’s City Paper.