Los Angeles has a strange poverty of Children’s theater (at least at our larger theaters). Yes, there’s the amazing once a year work at 24th Street theatre and there are Bob Baker’s beloved and bizarre puppet shows but LA is without a consistent theater that caters to families. Which seems foolish if you care about creating future audiences, doesn’t it?
Back when the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts was just an idea - it was rumored to be a children’s theater.
As theatre business plans go - that certainly captured a niche in this market.
Now, the Wallis has been through a lot of changes since it was an idea on a blueprint and as a presenting company it feels like it’s still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be when it grows up - but you can still feel (and see) a lingering commitment to youth theater.
Their latest offering, Pigpen Theatre Company’s “The Old Man and the Old Moon” is the ambling story of how the light gets into the moon told by seven guys who play all the parts and double as a charming folk band.
The story feels like the kind of episodic tale a creative parent might tell a child at bedtime. It starts with the poetic idea that the moon has a tiny hole that slowly leaks light so it needs to be refilled every day. From there it chases its story like a cat playing with a ball of yarn - not really in a straight line but with a sort of playful abandon that incorporates pirates and puppets and other stories that draw on fables and myths. Again, it’s like a bedtime story that unfolds across episodes if your nighttime ritual included a folk band like Mumford and Sons to provide the score.
The seven actors double as that folk band grabbing guitars, banjos, a violin and even a makeshift bottle xylophone. The music has a propulsive, soulful quality that holds the whole thing together.
The performance aesthetic has the wonderfully creative ethos of the best fringe shows. It’s got a simple DIY feel where a sheet strung between two poles becomes a shadow puppet theater and all you need to make a boat is some burlap and a broomstick. It charms with wonderfully low-tech actor-centered spectacle - but it’s not clumsy. These are folks who know what they’re doing and can create a terrible storm at sea with a handful of flashlights and some spooky percussion.
This isn’t overly saccharine children’s theater where you grit your teeth and pretend to match the fake smiles of the performers. This is theater you’ll enjoy as much as the children. In fact at the performance I saw the bulk of the audience was unaccompanied adults.
While there is nothing particularly terrifying - it’s probably not for the really little ones given it’s 90 minutes without an intermission. And unless your teenager dreams of being on stage or in a folk band - this might not pass the cool test for them but I bet you’ll catch them enjoying the music despite themselves.
If you’re looking for a way to share some inventive theater with the family (or you just miss good bedtime stories) Pigpen Theatre has you covered.
“The Old Man and the Old Moon” play as the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through March 17th.