A Bwog Staffer and self-proclaimed techie attended CMTS’ Saturday matinee performance of Pippin at the Minor Latham Playhouse directed by Barnard junior, Sophia Houdaigui and produced by Sarah Leidich (BC ‘21) and Sila Puhl (CC ‘21).
Trigger Warning: This article contains a mention of suicide.
The house lights dim into a moment of complete darkness, before a single spotlight is positioned on the leading player (Lauren Wilmore, BC ‘20). As the audience erupts in cheers, a slow smile flickers across her face, before she descends back within her character. She turns around and invites the audience to “join us.” The remainder of the twelve-person cast slowly joins her on the stage. Their enthusiasm for storytelling is evident from the first moments of the show, and the audience knows they are in for a memorable experience.
Pippin tells the story of King Charlemagne’s son, Pippin (Mark Pierce, CC ‘20), on his journey to find meaning in life. As Pippin journeys through his life, he finds that no matter what he does—be it fighting in a war, becoming king, or organizing a revolution—he is unable to find any form of fulfillment. All the characters are played by performers in a traveling circus-like troupe, creating two levels of characterization for the actors to embody. Each actor proved their incredible skills by creating their own player, then deciding how that player might perform the role.
One of my favorite aspects of the show was the level of audience participation incorporated by the cast. Beyond simply breaking the fourth wall with the script, the actors frequently used the aisleways and went into the audience to talk to or sit with audience members. Experiencing their excitement and energy up close made the show more meaningful and realistic from the beginning. I was sucked into the story, and ultimately felt as though I understood the characters more.
Pippin begins to find enjoyment after meeting everyday housewife Catherine (Morgan Grant, BC ‘22) and her son, Theo (Russel Graviet, CC ‘23). The Leading Player guides the other players to become more and more menacing and aggressive towards Pippin, Catherine, and Theo, encouraging Pippin to commit suicide as his one great, meaningful moment in life. Instead, Pippin decides to join Catherine and Theo in their ordinary life, giving up his lifelong search for the extraordinary in favor of true happiness.
The dynamic between Wilmore and Pierce was especially notable, as their characters could not have been better portrayed. The alluring mystery and violent evil of the Leading Player were contrasted beautifully with Pippin’s youthful charm. The emotional journey of both characters is crucial to the meaning of the play, and their nuanced performances allowed for this to be gradually and naturally explored as the plot progressed.
The choreography, by Sophie Visscher-Lubinizki (BC/JTS ‘21), made great use of all twelve actors, and truly filled the stage with a variety of dynamic formations. I was impressed with the number of circus lifts and tumbling skills incorporated into the show by all the performers. Despite the elaborate contortion and dancing, the focus remained on the story. The dancing and circus could easily have pulled the audience’s attention away and become the main focus of the show, but Visscher’s expertise and clear understanding of the show’s central meaning ensured this did not happen.
The entire show was set in the 1960s, with signs being switched out on the side of the stage to label different scenes as representative of the Vietnam War, the free love or the counterculture movement. Director Sophia Houdaigui’s (BC ‘21) choice to modernize the story was a risk that most definitely paid off. Having seen the show before, its interpretation in an alternate historical context made the characters more relatable and breathed new life into the scenes.
I also appreciated Houdaigui’s choice to do the “Theo ending” of the show. There are a few different endings to Pippin, including the original, where the show ends with Pippin, Catherine, and Theo on stage together, ready to begin their ordinary but joyous lives. In this version, first introduced in 1998 and included in the 2013 Broadway revival, Theo returns to the stage after exiting with Pippin and Catherine. He begins to sing Corner of the Sky, reprising Pippin’s iconic song about searching for more extraordinary things from life. The players slowly return from the back of the theatre and join him on stage, having found their new Pippin, suggesting that the story is a cycle that continues on infinitely. This ending parallels the importance of the 1960s era in modern times. It drives home the importance of learning from our past, in order to avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors.
When it came to the technical elements, I appreciated the 60’s motifs used in the set, but I was somewhat underwhelmed with the overall design. Although I understand budgets are limited (insert sad face), I would have liked a more whimsical representation of the era, so that after the players leave Pippin with nothing, the change would feel more drastic. However, I did love the mod 60’s geometric curtains that hung as the backdrop for the show. They were surprisingly versatile and complemented a wide variety of scenes quite nicely.
As for the lights, I appreciated the contrast between the playful, fantastic design for scenes controlled by the players, and the more emotional, introspective scenes ruled largely by Pippin. The lights contributed towards the plotline and reflected the emotions of the characters to subconsciously influence the audience’s emotions.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Pippin. The passionate and dedicated cast brought Pippin’s story to life and successfully drew the crowd into the emotion of the show. The theatrical and technical elements blended together to create a cohesive piece of art that brought the audience to its feet by the end of the play. Together the cast sang with us, “Oh, it’s time to start livin’. Time to take a little from this world we’re given. Time to take time, ‘cause spring will turn to fall in just no time at all…” Pippin’s message of appreciating and living the life you have, instead of always searching for more, rang out through the Minor Latham Playhouse. I couldn’t be more grateful to have experienced it.
The beautiful Pippin poster header via Caroline Kichler