The seven young artists known as PigPen Theatre Co. have a very specific aesthetic, honed over several years since their forming as undergrads at Carnegie Mellon University, that’s nonetheless difficult to neatly categorize: one part sophisticated theatermakers, one part accomplished folk band (they’ve held a concert residency at the Old Town School of Folk Music while rehearsing in Chicago), and one part supercharged story hour at the children’s library. But unlike with their previous appearance at Writers Theatre, with the whimsical The Old Man and the Old Moon in 2013, you’ll want to leave the kids at home for their return visit. Though it centers on a child character, The Hunter and the Bear goes to new and admirably darker and scarier places in its storytelling.
At its heart, Hunter is about storytelling itself—the power of the ghost story in particular, and the way we transmute our own stories, and the ones we tell ourselves, as both a means of self-preservation and cautionary tales for future listeners. The central story concerns a group of lumber prospectors in the indeterminate Old West, scouting a deserted-seeming area that we learn was the site of a terrible and deadly forest fire decades earlier. One of the men, Tobias (Ben Ferguson), has a young son, Elliot (portrayed by Ryan Melia with the help of some ingenious and endearing puppets, designed along with the show’s costumes by Lydia Fine). When Tobias, the hunter of the group, sees signs of a bear prowling near the camp, a mysterious stranger (Dan Weschler) shows up to suggest it might be more than a simple, mortal bear. And then Elliot spots the ghostly “Smoke Girl” in the woods.
PigPen’s trademark lo-fi effects (shadow puppetry, live Foley effects) serve the atmospheric story well, as does the group’s inventive, effective musicianship; the work of the entire design team—Fine, scenic designer Collette Pollard, lighting designer Bart Cortright and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel—integrates remarkably well in service of the milieu cultivated by the troupe and co-director Stuart Carden. The plotting and characterization in this new piece could perhaps use a bit more fine-tuning; an entire school of red herrings swims ahead of the big revelation, and Melia’s cloying voice work for Elliott underlines the young character’s sitcom-style precocity. Still, you shouldn’t miss the chance to see this rising-profile group mining new emotional depths.
Writers Theatre. By PigPen Theatre Co. Directed by Stuart Carden and PigPen Theatre Co. With Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, Dan Weschler. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.