Global warming, global war, gluten — there are plenty of things to be terrified of within the uncontrollable chaos of daily life. We can now add flocks of conspiring pigeons to the list thanks to The Pigeoning, a surprisingly touching piece of theater, unconventionally layered with far-fetched imagination and Bunraku-style puppetry.
Creator and director Robin Frohardt brings The Pigeoning back to HERE Arts Center for a return engagement following its December 2013 run. Her intricately crafted puppet protagonist, Frank, wears the stern expression of many a bedraggled member of the modern workforce, not to mention a similarly apropos costume of high-waisted brown pants, ill-matching black shoes, and thick coke-bottle glasses. Plagued by obsessive compulsions, Frank sits at his desk attempting to read a thick binder labeled "Office Safety Manual" while he frenetically plucks tissue after tissue to scrub everything from the lip of his Styrofoam coffee cup to his spotless nameplate. His paranoia is sent into a dizzying spiral after a few chance encounters with some suspicious-looking park pigeons who may or may not be prophesying a biblical Armageddon.
Frohardt, Daniel Burnam, Lille Jayne, Nick Lehane, Erica Livingston, Rowan Magee, and Andy Manjuck make up the crew of black-clothed puppeteers who delicately maneuver Frank through his increasingly fantastical world where reality and imagination gradually become indistinguishable. Despite the eccentric storyline, the artists breathe both humorous and sympathetic life into our inanimate hero. Absent of dialogue, you may occasionally find yourself struggling to catch up with the plot's quirky twists and turns. However, if you resist the urge to rationalize the details of Frohardt's peculiar character study, most of these confusions are entirely avoidable.
Composer Freddi Price, who silently takes his place in the corner of the room behind a keyboard, lends his original compositions to the piece, setting its continually changing tones. Like a live-action animated short, the music nicely complements The Pigeoning's succinct vignettes and helps us acclimate to this unorthodox theatrical experience, which wisely clocks in at a concise 60 minutes.
As flocks of unsuspecting — or perhaps deviously conniving — pigeons continue to peck away at what little sanity Frank can claim for himself, he resorts to increasingly absurd measures of self-protection. Morse code, a pigeon slideshow, and a life raft made of milk cartons all play their part in Frank's defensive strategy — behaviors that are arguably comparable in lunacy (or practicality) to the pre-Y2K rush for water bottles and canned goods. This subtle dig at our own neuroses adds an unexpected yet welcome relatability to the story's surreal, and potentially alienating, context. While we enjoy the visual artistry of the skilled troupe of puppeteers, we can also meditate on our own irrational attempts at controlling the uncontrollable — something modern life tends to convince us is within our capabilities. Who knew so much wisdom could be gleaned from a pigeon?