Last night, I went to a spectacular production of Pippin at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. Pippin is the eldest son of Charlemagne - though these characters are based on real people, Charlemagne and Pepin, very little of the plot is historically accurate. The show begins, after introducing a troupe of players (Magic to Do), when Pippin has finished university and returned home to begin finding his place in the world (Corner of the Sky).
Pippin does not seem to have a clear idea of what he wants to do with his life, beyond that he is "extraordinary" and he wants to have a fulfilling life. He tries on various "selves" over the course of the show: warrior, courtesy of some sibling rivalry with his half-brother Lewis - his time as a warrior ends after a discussion with a headless corpse; lover, after a discussion with his grandmother; revolutionary and then King, after some coaxing by the Lead Player; artist (until the arts budget is cut); and religious man (where he was "touched" but not by an angel). For each, Pippin seems to drift along, trying on these different identities, but never fully committing to them - in fact, even selecting these identities is not always his idea. The only decision he seems to make on his own is to run away and try something new, all the while insisting that he is "extraordinary" - so how could he possibly lead a simple, ordinary life? When nothing seems to be working, Pippin's existential crisis leaves him in utter despair.
The show echoes some of the struggles we all go through, of determining our identity and role in the world (see a previous post about this topic). According to Erikson's stages of development, this stage occurs during adolescence, about ages 13-19. Presumably Pippin is older than this by a few years, but it's quite likely that this stage may extend a little later for people who attend university before selecting a career and life goal. The Lead Player operates as the little voice inside Pippin's head, telling him he is made for great things and should never settle. The Lead Player even attempts to sabotage Pippin's relationship with a woman describing herself as "ordinary." But Pippin seems to find some fulfillment and meaning when he meets someone who needs him, and this helps guide him to his destiny.
As I mentioned, the production was spectacular. The story took place inside a circus tent, with the players doing complicated acrobatics, dangling from hoops and trapeze, and, in one scene, balancing on four stacked metal tubes. Pippin's stepmother, Fastrada, had two costume changes in one scene that each took only a few seconds. The actors all had a great time, interacting with the audience and ad-libbing. The show breaks the fourth wall very often, especially in Act 2, so the interactions with the audience - such as Charlemagne playfully chiding the audience for applauding Fastrada ("Don't applaud; you'll only encourage her... And don't applaud that, either.") - fit well with the tone of the show.
In one scene, Lewis was supposed to leap through a hoop the Lead Player held over her head, and he just barely missed. Staying completely in the character, the Lead Player said - as the orchestra kept playing - "Nope, we're doing that one again." Lewis returned to his starting position, the orchestra transitioned back to that point in the music seamlessly, and Lewis made the leap flawlessly to thunderous applause. As the Lead Player continued on with the show, she briefly paused and said to the audience, "You're welcome."
Under the surface, though, Pippin deals with a much deeper, even somber theme, about finding fulfillment and leading a good life - regardless of whether it is extraordinary or not - as well as the danger of letting perfect be the enemy of good. The light-hearted tone of the rest of the show allows Pippin (and the audience) to get so caught up in the fun, we almost miss when the action takes a darker turn.
I wish all of you could see this show. Sadly, the production closes on Sunday. But if you have the opportunity between now and then - yes, I know, not a lot of time - definitely check it out!
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