Stage reviews: Festival of Firsts puppet shows deal with difficult issues

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The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts continued this week with what might be termed a pair of companion pieces by companies on opposite sides of the world, Perth Theatre Company from Western Australia and Robin Frohardt, currently operating out of New York City.

Yet they seemed to share so much. Both a little over an hour long and easily seen in a single evening, they revolved around a single male character, portrayed by puppets. Each explored difficult subjects, dementia and obsessive-compulsiveness. And they were able to transport their audiences, all the while reflecting a thing or two about the viewers' own lives, in fascinating ways.

'It's Dark Outside' (Perth Theater Company)

No, it wasn't escapist theater, the kind that gives respite from daily life. Perth granted its audience a liberal dose of reality, confronting aging, dementia and Sundown Syndrome, thoughts that we normally would try to avoid while ensconced in their own darkness at the Pierce Studio. But it was told in such a caring and ultimately magical fashion that this "Dark"-ness developed its own beauty and light.

A masked actor played an old man, his shoes oversized and sturdy, his face drooping and resigned. The impish coffee cup at his table seemed to be playing games, periodically moving away. A cottony cloud emanated from his head and floated off, like a memory forgotten.

But as the light dimmed, he found himself outdoors under a starlit sky. And the adventure, whether in his mind or part of the exotic Australian Outback (and much like the American West), began in earnest.

So many details, ripe with a breathtaking imagination, became part of his journey.

Using only three puppeteers, the old man encountered a loyal companion shaped like a pup tent, but sometimes a horse to ride, and clouds that morphed into a dog, a cuddly baby and a plane at war. There was also an expertly done vaudeville routine.

A shadowy figure seemed to follow him behind a scrim, where there were changes in size and perception. Then Rachel Dease's evocative score played "I'll be your light when it's dark outside ..."

And, even though life can be sad and sometimes cruel, suddenly we were comforted. Prepare to be enchanted, and bring your Kleenex.

'The Pigeoning' (Robin Frohardt, HERE Artist Residency Program)

A festival world premiere, "The Pigeoning" takes place in an '80s urban environment, just far enough removed to take full advantage of its dark humor, which was performed in the bunraku style of puppetry. The audience was escorted into Bricolage's Liberty Avenue theater by male attendants clad in blue shirts and tan pants and given an Office Safety Manual.

They were led through an orientation, stressing things like "Cleanliness" and "Do's and Don'ts."

It set the tiny stage for Frank, a bug-eyed office worker with large glasses, who sat at a nondescript, very clean desk with his own manual. Frank followed everything to the letter. All was in order.

But when he went outside to a park bench for lunch, it was obvious that the rest of world hadn't read the manual ... particularly the pigeons.

In Frank's mind, they began to stalk him, so he turned the tables. It all spiraled laughably out of control in a Great Flood, where Frank was strangely released from the manual's burdens with the help of the birds, one in a diving helmet.

"The Pigeoning" acted as a bunraku mirror, with room to heighten the idea of "inter-species conspiracy" but already a way to look at and enjoy our foibles.

"It's Dark Outside" continues Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Trust Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave.; "The Pigeoning" continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at 937 Liberty Ave. Tickets are $25. Some events are sold out; check trustarts.org or 412-456-6666.

theaterreviews

Jane Vranish: jvranish1@comcast.net. She blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com. First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM


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