BWW Reviews: THE PIGEONING Captivates with Clever, Moving puppetry
A middle-aged 9-5er sits at attention at his highly organized desk in a dull, spare, wood-paneled office. He pores over a safety manual, vigorously highlighting essential remarks, forcefully repeating them to himself as though trying to permanently lodge their obvious yet hilariously vague sentiments into his head (strive to "support functionality of ourselves and others"). With his 1980s comb-over and droopy eyes hidden behind coke-bottle glasses, Frank is one of those office drones that works to live, yet life outside the office seems non-existent. He's a sad, even depressing, figure, and yet, in The Pigeoning, created and directed by Robin Frohardt and presented as part of the HERE Dream Music Puppetry program (one of the few programs in the country to commission contemporary adult puppet works), he's exceptional.
Frank is but a couple feet tall, with an intricately carved, wrinkled face and red-rimmed eyes. He's a startlingly realistic-looking bunraku puppet, a form developed in seventeenth-century Japan, controlled by three black-masked puppeteers (one controls his head and left hand, another his right, and the third, his feet). When Frank's OCD kicks in - and it does a lot - he frantically grabs at tissue after tissue, furiously wiping down his desk, and then sighs heavily, chest heaving up and down, before resuming his perusal of office procedures, while tapping his fingers methodically on his desk.
Encouraged by his office manual and the Safety in the Office Training Conference - that we participate in, replete with binders of procedures and those hilariously awkward, falsely enthusiastic instructional videos that we've all endured at least once in our working lives - Frank becomes obsessed with cleanliness and order. Assisted only with live music by Freddi Price - the original compositions range from amusingly canned elevator music to complex buoyancy with ominous undertones - and tongue-in-cheek voice-overs clipped from the safety video - The Pigeoning follows Frank as he evolves from a diligent rule-follower to a paranoid obsessive. When a pigeon hops toward him while eating his lunch on a bench, Frank physically recoils at the uncleanliness of the bird, and at the overflowing garbage in the park. When another pigeon flutters down, Frank's convinced: He's got an "interspecies conspiracy" on his hands.
From there, the piece evolves into a fantastical nightmare in which Frank investigates the crafty pigeons - one terrorizes him at his windowsill, another ludicrously wears a diving helmet whilst pecking along, tauntingly - while he increasingly neglects his regular routines. As a voice helpfully reminds us that "a clean desk equals a clean mind," Frank's office transforms from pristine organization to cluttered chaos, with coffee cups strewn about and papers piled high and haphazardly. As Frank barrels toward his apocalyptic ending - a beautifully orchestrated flood replete with shimmering waves, dives to a sunken office, and pizza-box stingrays - we're offered a delightful (and only a little disturbing) glimpse into the absurdity of our own neuroses and the ease with which we can indulge them.
A captivating and thoughtful piece with a clever sense of humor, The Pigeoning is at its best in those small moments of intricate detail - an angry, shivering body; the precise straightening of a tie with a gentle cock of the head; a graceful breaststroke into the dark depths. The beauty and the message are in the movement.
The Pigeoning continues through December 22 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan. www.here.org. Directed by Robin Frohardt and assistant directed by Erica Livingston. With music composed and performed by Freddi Price, lighting design by Heather Sparling, and puppets/props/set by Robin Frohardt and Jesse "Roadkill" Wilson. Performed by puppeteers Daniel Burnam, Lillie Jayne, Nick Lehane, Rowan Magee and Andy Manjuck.
Photo Credit: Richard Termine