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STAGE REVIEW

A magical Appalachian story in ‘Mountain Song’

Some of the seven men who make up PigPen Theatre Company, performing with puppets, props, and musical instruments, in “The Mountain Song.’’ Some of the seven men who make up PigPen Theatre Company, performing with puppets, props, and musical instruments, in “The Mountain Song.’’ (Tom Strong)
By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2011

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Watching a performer fashion a lifelike flying goose from a piece of paper, some string, and his own arm is a reminder that theater is the art of making something out of nothing. And there’s plenty of that magic in “The Mountain Song,’’ which PigPen Theatre Company, under the auspices of Company One, is giving its world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts. An ensemble piece incorporating tall tales, Appalachian-flavored live original music, diverse puppets, unusual props, and no little imagination, “The Mountain Song’’ might sound like children’s theater, but Saturday night in the Calderwood Pavilion’s Rehearsal Hall A, it had a packed house of mostly adults spellbound.

The seven men of PigPen are graduates of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. The company formed in 2008, and this is its fourth show. Its third, “The Nightmare Project,’’ won the Overall Excellence in a Production Award at the 2010 New York City International Fringe Festival. “The Mountain Song’’ was workshopped last summer at Vineyard Arts Project on Martha’s Vineyard, where the company will again summer before the Fringe fest.

Every PigPen piece entails some kind of journey. In “The Nightmare Story,’’ a boy travels to a far-off mountain to find a flower that will rouse his mother from her coma. In “The Mountain Song,’’ a carpenter loses track of his daughter just before her wedding; he wants to attend the nuptials, but he doesn’t know where they are.

When the doors to the theater open, the performers are already on stage, barefoot, in everyday shirts and suspenders and trousers, working their way into the hand-clapping, foot-stomping number on guitar, banjo, fiddle, accordion, tambourine, and drum that will start the one-hour show. The carpenter’s daughter, Abigail, was born mute, so she goes off to the city to learn sign language, but when she writes home to say she’s getting married, she forgets to say where. Dad hears the ceremony will take place at the end of a river, so he goes to the top of the mountain to get “the lay of the land.’’ From there he travels to the end of three rivers, each trip being darker than the one before. Along the way he meets a talking goose, a giant who wears a size 239 shoe, and a man riding a suitcase named Bessie. Oh yes, and he invents the airplane. He winds up in a spooky shadowland where he’s forced to shoot crows to feed a coyote; he never does get to Abigail’s wedding, but in the end he’s reunited with her and his granddaughter.

All this is narrated in folksy style by a bearded Ben Ferguson, who also plays the mountain. Dan Weschler is equally down-home as the carpenter, whose role speaks to the inventive doings of the company. Abigail and her daughter are represented by dresses hung from a horizontal rod; a platform of wooden planks becomes a fence and then a raft; the sole of the shoe the carpenter cobbles for the giant doubles as a projection screen; one performer holds a blanket by its edge to depict the mountain and another uses itsy-bitsy-spider fingers to show the carpenter climbing.

The musicianship is accomplished, with Ryan Melia touching in a fiddle lullaby and Arya Shahi using his drum to conjure a bodhrán, and there are some catchy lyrics (“God and the devil, / God and the devil, / One’s made of mud, / The other of metal’’). And the unassuming actors are as comfortable with the script as they are in their clothes. When you are as talented as the PigPen ensemble, making something from nothing comes easy.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

THE MOUNTAIN SONG Written and performed by PigPen Theatre Company

Shadow screens, Matt Bialek. Lights, Bart Cortright. Puppetry, Nic Marlton, David Feldsberg, Jared Gerbig.

Presented by Company One. At: Calderwood Pavilion, Rehearsal Hall A, Boston Center for the Arts, through June 25. Tickets: $18-$25 ($15 students). 617-933-8600, www.companyone.org