In early April, The Harker Conservatory premiered the American leg of its gritty, aggressive production of Stephen Schwartz’ “Pippin” for the upper school’s 2011 spring musical. Directed by Laura Lang-Ree, performing arts department chair K-12, the troupe will travel to Scotland in August to perform the show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest international performing arts festival in the world.
A meditation on the struggle to lead a meaning-driven life, “Pippin” smashes together a coming-of-age tale, wherein Pippin must swim though an endless ocean of hopeful-yet-unsatisfying choices, with a mid-life awakening, where, awash in apathy and disappointment, a despairing, confounded Pippin must reconcile his lost promise with a domestic lifestyle he had condemned. Finally, with an end-of-life letting-go, Pippin finds his choices made and his time running thin.
Just as the real-life Pepin, the son of Charlemagne and prospective heir to the Holy Roman Emperor, grew up with a duality and uncertainty regarding his coming adulthood, torn between the potential to inherit a vast religious legacy and the danger that his deformities and disabilities might rob him of a bright future, so too our Pippin is caught when his ambition, immeasurable talents and desire to live out an extraordinary life struggle to find an outlet.
And, just as the historical Pepin would be thrust into a journey that would see him conspire to assassinate his famous father, fail and be pardoned, and live out the rest of his life as a monk, so too our Pippin embarks on a long and epic journey through warfare, romance, politics, family, scholarship and solitude in search of meaning, fulfillment and an opportunity to flourish.
As a young man, praised for his mounting and lofty intentions, Pippin joins his father and brother in a holy war in search of esteem, glory and thrills. However, he finds himself alienated from his military peers and personally unsuited to the horrors of battle. After consulting with elders, Pippin conspires to assassinate his father and slides into a political future casting himself as a problem solver who can float above traditional problems. Alas, unequal rights, taxation and military preparedness are more difficult problems to solve than he had imagined. Pippin’s promise turns to disappointment and he abandons a civic life to continue his personal search for fulfillment.
The text of Pippin was chosen by Lang-Ree for its appeal at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where the production can speak to an international community of adventurous and bold globetrotters searching for their place in the world and “resonate with our young American and European audiences who, like Pippin, are trying to find their way in these times of global economic depression and civic revolution,” she said.
The production showcases the depth of Conservatory members with a compelling and edgy choice that Lang-Ree expects will draw in a sophisticated audience at the festival, an influential meeting place and launching pad for theatrical trends.
Lang-Ree noted the production connects with its audience through humor; indeed, “Pippin” is ultimately a lively, comic affair.
During the campaign, Pippin’s alienation from fellow soldiers is illustrated when he diverges from his crew’s war song in an enthusiastic, lonely, bursting, incongruous solo. In the stylized battle, loose limbs fly from every direction and after the fray, in a moment of poignant reflection, Pippin consults with the severed, though pleasant-mannered, head of one of the battle’s casualties.
Yet hilarity often turns to heartfelt longing. After Pippin gives up on his long quest, he finds himself emotionally shipwrecked and personally abandoned – dirty, lonely, and apathetic – before he is discovered by a kindly young widow – Catherine – a single mother whose son has an endearing pet duck nearing the end of its life. While the prop duck wins the audience’s hearts and smiles, a romance blossoms between Pippin and Catherine.
Comic, but crushing, Pippin leaves Catherine, unwilling to content himself with a domestic life: “Life is more than ducks that die,” he says. Catherine, who was introduced telling of her despair after her husband’s death and of how she picked herself up, is left repeating the refrain: “On the sixth day, I got up. There were things to be done,” adding a tearful lament: “He was the best to come along in a long, long while.”
Pippin’s journey is framed by a theatrical troupe of players who manifest for him the various vignettes he lives out. These sly and darkly irreverent players, directed by Lang-Ree to represent “the darkness in Pippin’s mind and the negativity that can eat away at all of us,” flesh out the environment of voices and dancers who surround the plot.
In the end, as the performance nears its conclusion, Pippin, faced with dying an unsatisfying death after never compromising the purity of his intentions, resolves to continue living, and to search for happiness and meaning in the human relationships he can revive with Catherine and her son. Yet, when the players are deprived of their fantastical and tragic finale – Pippin and Catherine, in a metatheatrical moment, seek to disable the production, shutting down the stage lights and willing the band to cease playing before permanently exiting the stage – the players find a new target to propel on a path of human existential searching: Catherine’s son Theo. Thus, with a bang of light and sound, in our performance’s closing moments, the story begins anew, and the cycle continues, with Theo as the newly appointed protagonist.
Wearing eyeshadow, dark, skinny jeans, and chains about his waist, John Ammatuna, grade 12, dazzles as the wistful, daring, sarcastic Pippin. The ensemble, performing in black leather and neon, dances amidst a hazy smoke pierced by green, purple and burnt orange beams of light, matching jagged, exact, aggressive, athletic choreography with buoyant character acting. The ensemble is led by Daniel Cho, grade 12, as the cunning Leading Player; Noel Witcosky, grade 11, as the shimmering Catherine; Adi Parige, grade 12, as Pippin’s father; Sean Martin, grade 12, as Pippin’s likeably dimwitted brother; Allike Walvekar, grade 12, as his wily grandmother; and Michelle Holt, grade 12, as his conniving stepmother.
The architecture, a whirling mix of gilded and bronzed wheels, cogs and gears, was created by Paul Vallerga of the performing arts department; lights were designed by Natti Pierce-Thomson; choreography was by Katie O’Bryon; costumes by Caela Fujii, and performing arts teacher Catherine Snider led the rock band in music she reworked to better match Lang-Ree’s steam punk vision.
In her program note, Lang-Ree framed the production as a contemplation of the “too-hyped American Dream,” where one man is “told that he can have it all if he just works hard enough.” “When you’re extraordinary, you think of extraordinary things,” Pippin tells us early on, lamenting “here I am, to seize my day – if anybody would tell me when the hell it is.”
As the production reaches its end, with our triumphant and defiant family drenched in an ethereal sidelight, and the leading player taunting Pippin, chanting that his “search for perfection was doomed from the start” – that after a life of wandering, nothing was completely fulfilling – we are left to hope that Pippin has found his extraordinary capstone after all, in the comfort of those around him, and the shared life he now embarks on. “I wanted such a little thing from life,” he said. “I wanted so much.”