If I had to describe Ad Hoc’s performance of the musical Pippin in one word, I would have to use the word “unusual” — and considering all the strangeness I’ve encountered in my lifetime, this description should not be taken lightly. The musical opened on Thursday night and will play through next weekend. Other than having a character named Pippin in it, the production did not conform to any of my immaturely conceived expectations.
A summary explanation of the plot — the son of Charlemagne seeks self-fulfillment and a better future for the empire — wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the play. From this description, I expected the musical to be a dry, historical recreation, and for some reason, I imagined that all of the peasants would be wearing burlap sacks and Charlemagne would be sporting a curly white wig (obviously, my knowledge of ancient history is also cursory at best).
But the plot was much more resonant than one would expect. A pacifistic Pippin, played by Goizueta Business School senior Robby Glade, finds himself at odds with his warlord father and naively takes it upon himself to improve the plight of those living within the empire. But he soon learns a grave lesson about the pressures of ruling over such a vast territory. Despite the bubbly musical score, Pippin’s realization settles over the audience like an ominous tone — apparently angst, or “complete utter abject despair” as Pippin called it, also plagued adolescents living thousands of years ago.
Pippin then embarks on a quest to find himself, and eventually his aimless wandering leads him to widow’s estate. It’s not until his own angst is challenged by an even greater angst — the petulance of the widow’s child whose pet duck has passed away — that Pippin begins to open up and learn how to achieve happiness and fulfillment. Despite the glaring differences between Pippin and the audience (my dad owns a house, not most of present-day Europe), his plight is familiar, and we can all find some merit in the lesson to take each day as it comes.
Although the plot dragged from time to time as Pippin grappled with his extensive ‘woe-is-me’ phase, many well-timed jokes served to successfully draw the audience back in. I wrongly assumed that a play set in like, you know, 750 A.D. or something wouldn’t be able to capitalize on humor, but just as the script smartly decided to forgo historical accuracy, the type of humor was appreciably anachronistic. Jabs at erectile dysfunction and foot fetishes were abound, not to mention an awkward abundance of sexual dance moves, much to the chagrin of parents who had brought their kindergarten-age children in the best of intentions.
The costumes were also refreshingly unexpected. College junior T.J. Chernow, who played the character of Charlemagne, wore a grungy trenchcoat, ‘90s-esque jewel sequins across his forehead and his hair in liberty spikes à la punk band the Casualties. The rest of the cast was no more predictable, with other characters all wearing make-up that would make Lady Gaga jealous and clothing that makes me wonder if Hot Topic started carrying a line of ’80s Jazzercise attire.
Thankfully, the costumes made up in design for what the stage lacked in decoration. Despite the great acting, the actors were unable to distract me from the glaring uninventiveness of the stage design. Literally just a wooden frame with steps and different levels, the stage’s bare-minimum style, coupled with the musical’s sparse use of props, detracted from the otherwise vibrant production. Something as simple as a fake tree, a curtain or a dining table for the post-war celebrations would have made a world of difference.
The most unique aspect of the musical, however, wasn’t the costumes or the jokes, but its light-hearted mockery of itself. Many of the lines are written to poke fun at the fact that they’re obviously scripted. College junior Gillian Kramer, dressed like a harlequin and playing the narrator-like role of the Leading Character, storms onto the stage at one point with a script in hand, yelling at a character for not reading a line “naggingly” as per the director’s instructions.
Similarly, a plot twist serves as the ending — an event referred to as the “Grand Finale” — as Charlemagne ignores the Leading Character’s heated insistence to stick to the script.
Despite the enthusiasm and strong performances of the cast, much of the humor and the interactive nature of the musical was unfortunately lost on the scant audience, which only consisted of a smattering of parents and friends. One song was supposed to involve the chorus being sung by the audience, but in reality only involved the chorus being sung by me and a small child.
Hopefully, the turn-out will be better for this weekend’s showings of Pippin. After all, regardless of what a great show the cast and the crew members of Ad Hoc put on for us, an audience is still necessary to appreciate the hard work — playing a laugh track just isn’t the same, and it’s just embarrassing for me when I’m the only one to bust out laughing at an erectile dysfunction joke.
— Contact Catherine Cai.