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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
The one-hour show, performed mostly sans dialogue, tells the story of Frank, a cleanliness-obsessed office worker in early 1980s New York who comes to believe that the pigeons in the park near his office are plotting against him and launches an investigation into what they might be hiding. It's a bit like the TV show Monk with elements of Hitchcock's The Birds mixed in. And then, of course, performed with puppets.
If you're intrigued, you won't be disappointed. The Pigeoning's creative combination of skillful puppetry, meticulously designed props and set pieces, along with other well-utilized multimedia components such as music and video is engrossing. Creator and director Robin Frohardt has a solid artistic concept and the technical prowess to match. The result is a performance that is visually compelling, humorous, and earnest.
The performance opens with a series of workplace safety videos that set the tone for the remainder of the show, as we learn how nearly everything can constitute a hazard that one must investigate, mitigate and substantiate in a report. Next, we find ourselves in Frank's office, where everyday problems (like where to position the items on his desk in order to achieve perfect symmetry) soon begin to pale in comparison to a bigger conundrum: what to do about all the pigeons that won't stop harassing him.
Beyond the videos and a related voiceover, there is no dialogue, placing the burden of auditory engagement on composer Freddi Price, who plays original music supplemented by sound effects. The music is a precise fit for the performance, and while the sound design feels a bit rough at times (this was probably in large part owing to a speaker that unfortunately seemed to keep cutting in and out at the performance I attended), it was perfectly effective.
As for the visuals, the show's skilled puppeteers — Daniel Burnam, Nick Lehane, Lille Jayne, Andy Manjuck, and Rowan Magee — move with the precision of dancers, manipulating cleverly designed puppets and props while fading relatively seamlessly into the background. Unlike a show like Avenue Q, the puppeteers' faces are covered, keeping the focus exclusively on the puppets themselves.
The progression of the plot, meanwhile, shifts the focus away from Frank's obsession with order and cleanliness and more towards what the pigeons might be up to, and what that might mean for Frank. The character's attempts to investigate remain constantly informed by the safety training he received earlier in the play (he continues to cling to his training binder even when it becomes extremely inconvenient for him to do so), yet his increasing desperation also leads him to veer completely from other aspects of the training, not to mention common sense.
Though descriptions of the show play up its focus on human psychology, and Frank's obsessive compulsiveness is an important underpinning of the plot, the psychological focus is much less overt than one might expect. The Pigeoning has as many moments that playfully recall Looney Tunes scenes, with Frank playing Elmer Fudd to the pigeons' Bugs Bunny, as those that prompt questions about what it means to be sane or not.
I'm not sure if I felt fully satisfied by the way the show addressed these questions, but it doesn't matter. The Pigeoning has a lot to offer; it's a visually interesting show that entertains with a well-balanced set of humorous and somber moments. And if you run into any pigeons on the way home after, just do your best not to get too paranoid.