Addison — Need a recipe for youthful optimism in cynical times?
Take Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales of virtue and resilience in the face of danger, add a dash of clever shadow puppetry and stir together in a large pot of Celtic-flavored music and dance and you have the basic ingredients of The Old Man and the Old Moon, a play with music written by PigPen Theatre Company and staged by Outcry Youth Theatre at Addison Theatre Centre's Studio Theatre.
The low-tech, high energy production, directed by Outcry's artistic director Becca Johnson-Spinos, is fueled by a 20-member company of ardent teenage actors and musicians, so well-rehearsed and certain in their multiple roles, it's easy to just hop aboard the dark ship profiled on the big white sheet and set sail. Stop thinking high school musical, and start thinking hard-working young artists making theater happen. A glance over the bios (which includes a double-cast for almost all roles) shows that many of the young thespians are home-schooled, while others attend middle and high schools in Allen, Frisco, Plano, Wylie and various Dallas schools.
PigPen Theatre Company, a collective of young musicians who met at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, launched the work in New York in 2012 to strong reviews, and the ensemble piece continues to attract young companies and audiences. The show is a perfect fit for Outcry, whose mission is to develop young audiences and actors with "highly physical staging and visceral performance styles," achieved through "rigorous rehearsals and attention to detail." I say to them, "You did it."
The wandering plot involves a sweet Old Man, played at the performance reviewed by slat-thin, dark-eyed Brayden Soffa, whose performance grows stronger as the play goes forward. The Old Man's job is to keep a leaky moon filled with buckets of fresh light. But when his wife, the Old Woman (lovely, winsome Camryn Smith) disappears following a melody, he leaves his post to follow his true love. His adventures involve a sailing ship, a lost seafaring hero, a dramatic scene in the belly of a leviathan, and a stalwart crew with funny and fantastic tales to tell us.
Everybody in the show is solid, and gender is just a beard or a fancy apron away in Claudia Warner's homespun costumes in muted colors. Petite Elizabeth Belilty is especially dynamic and mesmerizing as the first mate Matheson and general narrator for the show. Outfitted in gray slacks and matching vest, she strikes the perfect tone, both of skeptical onlooker and free-spirited adventurer. She'd give Joel Grey a run for his money in beckoning an audience into any show.
The original Gaelic-sounding folk songs in the show are adroitly merged into the dialogue, and help deepen the emotion we feel when our sailors are sad or threatened. Johnson-Spinos's vigorous and tightly-woven choreography has the noise and precision of Irish step-dancing, and her cast delivers the singing and dancing with contagious delight. Eight musicians, some doubling as actors, form the onstage band, which includes an accordion, a banjo, a Celtic harp and even a dulcimer.
Everybody clambers up Steve McMurray’s sturdy three-tiered raw-wood set, that becomes a sailing ship, a market place or the cottage home of the couple in the moon. Gabrielle Grafrath's puppets, constructed from rolling pins and floor mop wigs, are artfully playful and strike the right tone for the production as a whole.
The charm of the show is in the exuberant feeling of barely controlled chaos, as the troupe shifts costumes, makes a starry night with handheld flashlights, forms boats from sheets and sticks and manifests a stormy ocean with huge bolts of rolling blue cloth undulating in rapid sequence. Quite a feat, especially while singing on key or blowing softly to create a gentle sea breeze.
The show runs almost three hours, including a 20-minute intermission, but the buoyancy of this young cast sweeps us along smartly. Our fantasy voyage warns darkly of impending environmental destruction, but sparkles with the promise of lives renewed through human curiosity, humor and love.
We come ashore applauding the zest and hard work of our crew. Outside the theater on a Texas prairie evening, we leave with a fresh sense of what is still possible for our planet and all its amazing inhabitants.