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Pippin: Theater of the Mind


Consciousness is the choice of which abstractions we experience, out of an infinite number of ways of slicing the continuity of the universe. It's the feeling of existence that is the choice. 
Jaron Lanier from his essay, "You Can't Argue with a Zombie"



All commercial art forms, movies, books, and theater, resort to necromancy from time to time. As nothing quite indicates future success quite like previous success, Hollywood and Broadway constantly haul treasured works from their graves, animate them with an infusion of fresh blood, and send them to stagger forth into the night in search of dollars. 

Pippin, a very successful musical in the seventies, is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater, according to Mrs Crooks, a springboard for a return to Broadway this Spring. Despite a troubled production, difficult book, and jarring presentation, the original ran for 2000 shows, only ending on the year I was born, 1977. So on one level it's overdue for a revival. The music was written by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell and Wicked) and contains its fair share of bouncy, radio-friendly hits. Its original choreography from Bob Fosse was memorable, his costume and set design garish and striking. 

And yet I'm not surprised it took so long to return to life. Pippin has plenty of ugliness behind its surface charm.

On the most basic surface level, Pippin is a greatly fictionalized account of the eponymous son of Charlegmagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Pippin returns from university to find his own way to self-fulfillment, ultimate happiness in life, and confirmation of his own uniqueness. It's all very "Age of Aquarius," except for more sinister undercurrents. He tries his hand at war, debauchery, revolution, and despotic rule before slumping into apathy and depression. He meets a simple and ordinary widow, falls in love, and settles into a simple and ordinary life. Then the crisis: can this really be all there is? After all of his wanderings and experimentations, is his life no more than than fixing leaky roofs, farming, and consoling his adopted son over the death of a duck. He flees, contemplates suicide before realizing his life's true meaning: to love and be loved in return. Pretty standard stuff, the basis of countless shows.

However, all of that ignores the fact that the show takes place within in a menacing surreal circus, and the acrobatic flips, contortionist tricks, and spectacular dance numbers accompanying him, all move at the command of a sinister ringleader, a demonic and seductive "Leading Player." 

The story proceeds at such break neck speed that the actual story doesn't stray too much from the outline I sketched above. Other than Pippin and Catherine, the simple widow, no character spends much time on stage or offers much rationale for its existence. They are archetypes, costumed performers, and clowns. This isn't Les Mis or even Into the Woods, where effort is expended developing characters and their motivations. Pippin is a fairly transparent attempt to dress questions about the nature of consciousness and reality in the drag of spectacle and catchy choruses.

Pippin works for me best if you think about all of the events, characters, and props as existing only within a single person's mind. Maybe that person is Pippin, perhaps that person is the audience. The 'Magic' that the players do - prestidigitation, narrative convolutions, and distortions make sense within the context of a mind examining a menu of  possibilities. Jaron Lanier, a philosopher I've quoted above, described consciousness as a kind of 'dial,' or 'gauge,' which fluctuates through various levels of meaning. Perhaps that is the process this play dramatizes. As Pippin tries out various roles and guises, he mirrors the work a human mind must do during the course of its life, weighing choices against expectations. Pippin wants to be powerful and significant but he's repulsed by the corruption and banality of each identity he adopts. Each of his choices pale before the glow of the extraordinary destiny he sees for himself. The "Lead Player," caters to this angst, seducing the young man through song, spectacle, and wry commentary. By the end of the musical the demon's intent is clear: to force the searcher into a dilemma where the only possible way to fulfill impossibly high standards of a meaning and significance is a grand finale, an act of self-immolation. To go out with a bang. Pippin ultimately recoils from this, resuming a conventional life with a wife and a son. In one clever addition to the revival, in the end this boy, Theo, returns to the stage in the closing moments of the play to reprise the "eagles have to soar" line from Pippin. That is the only cue needed for the circus performers to slink back on to the stage. Magic and illusion tend to charm the innocent.

As with any revival, you have to wonder what the point of this is. Can a play created during the 70s, catering for a post-Woodstock audience really have much to offer now besides Cirque du Soleil acrobatics and updated instrumentation? Sure, Pippin's quest for meaning in life is one of those timeless themes, but what makes Pippin resonate now? I do think one other aspect of this story really registers. When Pippin reaches his final crisis of existence, the basic question is of either accepting a normal life or making some dramatic fiery exit that 'that will live on in the minds of others.' In Pippin that fire was aimed inwards, but tragically we know that isn't always the case. In the final calculation, I wonder how much separates the need for fame from the urge for infamy.
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