When I found out there was a new production of PIPPIN opening at the Menier Chocolate Factory, I jumped at the chance to see it. This evening's performance was the second preview. No doubt things will tighten up during the production, and flubbed lines and lyrics will be straightened out. The production attempts to tackle the problem of the dated-ness of the show, and very nearly succeeds.
The audience entered the auditorium through a hallway decked out like a proud geek's bedroom. Posters for TEAM AMERICA WORLD POLICE, HALO, and SERENITY paper the walls. As you turn the corner, we saw the geek in question, playing some sort of MMORPG as an electronic version of Ode To Joy played over and over again (at the interval, that had changed to the Super Mario Brothers theme song). He wore a headset microphone, so it was clear that he's in the show, though the idea that he might be our protagonist never occurred to me (it probably should have). Once inside the theatre itself, I imagined that I was sitting inside a computer. Lasers traced right angles on the gray backdrop, track lights flickered, and somewhere, R2D2 was talking to himself. I was struck by the size of the theatre. The Menier has produced some of the most acclaimed musical revivals of the last decade and they can't possibly seat more than 150 people.
This is a Pippin for our generation. This production breaks with convention, eschewing the play-within-a-play metaphor for a video-game-within-a-show theme. An antisocial gamer, the first thing our Pippin says when he's pulled through a vortex into the bizarre world of the show is "it could be more Tron." He comments upon the state of arts funding (a really big deal in the British theatrical community), and sexual abuse in the Church. He's generally disaffected, though when he becomes galvanized, he predictably morphs into a Barack Obama-style Hope Poster. His isolation is never more apparent than in "With You," which begins with Pippin flirting with chorus girls via an internet dating service, then shows the sort of sex ads that pop up when you're illegally streaming last week's How I Met Your Mother. A live woman doesn't appear onstage until halfway through the number, and, much as happens when you meet people from the internet in real life, things go horribly awry and leave our hero hanging in midair, trying to get the dancers to just go away (if I had a nickle for every internet date I've gone on that made me want to climb a tree until he went away...). This is a Pippin who was raised to believe that he was an exceptional individual, typical of my generation. When his life stagnated, he retreated into his sci-fi fantasies, preferring to Tweet his thoughts then actually speaking to people who might tell him he's just a regular guy.
They lose the metaphor a bit when Catherine is revealed. A nameless but obvious presence in the first act (she is the dancer who attracts Pippin's attention in "With You") her introduction and dialogue is still rooted firmly in the show-within-a-show framework. Berthe also fails to find her place in this conception. She appears as a doddering old lady, dressed in a a skirt and coat and pushing a grandma-cart. She's not depicted as a dowager queen, and might actually have been Pippin's IRL grandmother. Her scene is underdirected, and she doesn't fit into the world of the rest of the show. There were missed opportunities there. She should have been treated as someone who has been through the existential crises Pippin is encountering (that's why he goes to her in the first place), perhaps even as someone who was involved in the same story thirty years ago.
Most productions of Pippin, perhaps because of my beloved videotaped version, hold to Fosse-style choreography. This production was no exception. It was beautifully done, lots of very attractive young dancers in bowlers pelvic thrusting all over the place, but it seemed an odd choice. The problem of our kind of mediatized culture (okay, one of the problems) is that we don't have the opportunity for real human contact- Fosse's choreography belongs to a time when free love was the word of the day.
In a cool bit of stagecraft, the grey set turned out to be not solid wall, but made up of fabric strips, allowing for exits and entrances at any point of the theatre. It also acted as a projection surface, allowing the players to exit and have an animated or live-feed image of themselves fly, dance, immolate themselves, or just interact as if they were at home on their own computers, talking to each other on Skype. There is a considerable amount of interaction between the "live" actors and the animated or filmed versions. They converse, battle, and even make love. Every inch of space was utilized- anywhere there wasn't an audience member was performance space.
Twenty years on, I find I'm still as taken with Pippin as I was as a child, though now it's less about seeing Mayor Ben without his leopard makeup and more about relating to the protagonist's struggles to find himself. I moved all the way to London looking for my corner of the sky. I've yet to find it, but I am, as they say, on the right track.
As I was leaving the theatre this evening, I heard a family talking. At first, I clued into them because they were speaking in voices much like my own- there are a lot of Americans in London, sure, but it's always nice to hear a familiar accent. And then I heard them talking about the differences between this production and the last they saw, a couple of years ago at French Woods. I'm an ocean away from home and I'm still running into French Woodites at the theatre.