Color-changing, LED light finger-tipped gloves. Sequins. Feather eyelashes. Oversized plumes. Giant puppets. Patent leather platform heels.
"Pippin," Sock and Buskin's second show of the 2010–11 season, is certainly nothing if not a spectacle.
"It's really a neo-vaudevillian, steampunk extravaganza," said Kym Moore, the show's director and a visiting assistant professor of theater arts and performance studies.
The over-the-top production chronicles the part-fictional, part-real life and times of its title character (Ari Rodriguez '13), who is thrust into the limelight when he is invited on stage to become a part of the performance of a motley crew of actors led by their Leading Player (Ned Riseley '12), called the LP by the other performers.
"Pippin," written by Stephen Schwartz, is a show about "the breakdown of fakeness, about the breakdown of performance, and about finding reality and finding what's really meaningful," said Alex Keegan '12, the show's assistant director. The plot centers around a play-within-a-play, in which the actors and the characters they portray sometimes share the same names and the line between illusion and authenticity is often blurred.
The neo-vaudevillian group of players charm the audience and Pippin in the opening number, "Magic to Do," where they entice listeners, beckoning "join us" and promising that they have "magic to do just for you." An enthusiastic Pippin jumps up from the audience and joins the players, hoping that he will finally find his "corner of the sky" by becoming one of them.
Pippin is forced to act immediately, as the LP sets up his role as the son of King Charlemagne, or Charles, of the Holy Roman Empire (Kyle Dacuyan '11), who is preparing for war against the Visigoths. He also learns that he has a stepmother, Fastrada (Madeleine Heil '13, Patrick Madden '14), and a stepbrother, Lewis (Sean Patrick McGowan '12), within the show. Pippin begs Charles to allow him to join in his campaign against the Visigoths.
"You're dedicated to something and I just want to be dedicated to something too," he says, pleading with his "father."
Though reluctant at first, Charles ultimately lets Pippin become a soldier. However, once the battle's won, Pippin still feels unfulfilled.
In the course of the musical's subsequent events, Pippin searches desperately for meaning in his life — both on stage and off.
In his performance, he attempts to retreat to his grandmother's house, kills Charles and ascends the throne as king, only to realize it's not as promising a role as he initially expected. He tries throwing himself into art and then into the church, all to no avail, and he becomes a laborer on the estate of a widow, Catherine (Katelyn Miles '11).
Offstage, Pippin navigates the complex relationships and antics of the players, even attempting to find enjoyment through sexual encounters with them, which play out in an all-ensemble orgasm scene that ends with everyone flat-backed and panting on the floor.
But this leaves him "empty and vacant," and he ultimately falls in love with the actress who plays Catherine, growing close to her and her son, Theo (Kerry Hall '13).
By the end of the production, Pippin's frustrating failure to find meaning reaches a boiling point, and he is left to decide between acting out the elaborate "Grand Finale" that the players and LP have set up for him, or leaving the magic of their theatrical world behind for a more mundane, but real, existence.
Despite the extreme exaggeration of many of the performers' actions — apparent in elements such as obvious theatrical slaps between players, Lewis' borderline maniacal obsession with himself and Theo's hysterical relationship with a duck — the "meta" nature of the play often leaves one questioning when Pippin and the players are acting as themselves and when they have become the characters they've crafted.
"There was an interest in sleight of hand — what's seen and what's not seen, what's real and what's not real, what's true and what's not true — as a way to reveal a truth about life," Moore said.
In navigating how to perform in the role thrust upon him, Pippin mimics the struggles of everyday existence. He blunders and fumbles as he negotiates the various figures and characters the LP introduces to him, while attempting to stay true to himself in the process.
The production touches on a number of very human themes — including love, betrayal and finding oneself — that anyone can identify with and derive something from. "Pippin" is visually arresting, a impressive display of high-tech scenery and elaborate costumes. While the show features a large ensemble cast, every one of the actors contributes a unique element.
"It's a magical show. It's beautiful to watch. It's fun to be a part of. And it's 20 people and a team who've really put their all into creating something that's dynamic, that's energetic, that's moving, that's a spectacle, but that's also really real," Keegan said.
"Ultimately, we want an entertaining show that will touch people in some way … but I layer it and construct it as tightly as possible so that there's a lot you can get," Moore said.
Join the cast of "Pippin" in an extravaganza of musical theatre this weekend or next. Who knows — you may just find a little magic in the most unexpected of places.
"Pippin" runs Nov. 11-21, Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in Stuart Theatre.