Indie Artists on New Plays #28: Di Jayawickrema checks out The Pigeoning at HERE
I heard a story on the radio recently about a man who couldn’t spontaneously control his limbs. Every time he wanted to move, he had to carefully imagine the movement he wanted in his mind, and then force his limbs to recreate it. I thought of this feat of concentration as I watched the enormous task of bunkaru-style puppetry in Robin Frohardt’s weird and wonderful The Pigeoning. This meticulously-realized multimedia production, featuring puppetry, video and live music, follows Frank, an obsessive-compulsive office worker in the early 80s, as he comes face-to-face with the chaos that can erupt from trying to build a too perfectly ordered world.
When the audience walks into the theater, each person finds a copy of an Office Safety Manual at their seat. The production opens with a hilarious camp video where an office worker illustrates the manual in the too-bright, slowed-down tones of a flight safety attendant. She guides you through the perils of office life, such as the how to safely walk around corners, and what to do when you come across a plugged cord in your path. The video promises to go through 20-plus chapters but before the joke can grow stale, the play really begins. We find ourselves looking at the puppet Frank sitting at his pristine work desk, engrossed by his own safety manual. You get the sense that the tome has met its perfect reader. Created by the Director/Creator Robin Frohardt and designer Jesse Wilson, Frank is a beautiful puppet, hunched and bespectacled, deep lines creasing his face. As a puppet, Frank is not very big, but you immediately believe that as a character, this is a man made small by incessant worry. Three puppeteers in head-to-toe black man Frank–one puppeteer responsible for making his toes tap nervously, another for drumming his fingers on the desk while the other obsessively straightens his name plate. The fact that the puppeteers don’t always move in perfect unison actually works for this character at war with the world around him. At times, it feels like the hands that swiftly straighten pens and grab tissues to wipe away non-existent spots are just doing it out of pity for the poor, beleaguered man.
It comes as no surprise that when Frank escapes to the park to eat his lunch in peace, his tranquility is immediately shattered by an overflowing trash can abuzz with flies, and a pigeon pecking dangerously close to him. (The flies and pigeons are also gleefully manned by the talented puppeteers.) When Frank flees to the safety of his office, he finds another (or is it the same?) pigeon insistently tapping against his window. With his inner monologue (voiced by the safety manual guide) spinning wildly out of control, Frank flips to Chapter 17 of the manual: “Are you wondering, ‘Is there an inter-species conspiracy against me?’ The answer is probably yes!” Soon, Frank is stalking pigeons through the street, taking the most un-Frank-like risks from letting his desk pile up with clutter to hanging upside down from live telephone wires to record the morse code messages he’s convinced the pigeons are tapping out. Meanwhile, the pigeons are dropping surreal clues, leaving a tiny oar in the park, wearing diving bells, and Frank begins to wonder: are the pigeons trying to torture him, or warn him? The answer to that question is revealed in a wildly artistic journey that is too gorgeous to spoil. As Frank loses his grip on reality, the production takes ever larger flights of fantasy, which push the possibilities of puppetry to its dizzying, dazzling edge. You’re going to want to go down this rabbit hole.