Scenes of great pain and good humor in 'O Lovely Glowworm'

With its spiraling, fantastical story, New Century Theatre Company will take you to crazy town and back, but the journey leads to some profound wisdoms.

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Michael Patten and Brian Claudio Smith in 'O Lovely Glowworm.'

With its spiraling, fantastical story, New Century Theatre Company will take you to crazy town and back, but the journey leads to some profound wisdoms.

Dreams don’t always translate into good stories — no matter how seductive the imagery (see "Lost"). That is because a dream’s infinite possibilities come at the cost of low stakes for the audience. In other words, anything can happen, so wouldn’t it just be quicker if nothing happened? (See "Inception.")

The spiraling, fantastical story of O Lovely Glowworm takes a huge risk in this regard.

Made up of several “scenes of great beauty” all imagined by a depressed goat (yes, a talking, depressed goat), the play accelerates through a blur of bizarre happenings, much of them culminating in death or dying: from a truant student duking it out with his professor, to a firing-squad execution rewound and replayed play-by-play, to bombings on a WWI battlefield, to infidelity sprung on a golf course — and deeper and deeper until we are literally being carried to the bottom of an ocean by a heartbroken mermaid.

One loose thread, and material like this can fall apart into a mess of limp fragments.

However, New Century Theatre Company’s production, directed by Roger Benington, keeps it sewn together with ease, achieving something less like a J.J. Abrams experimentation in detour and more on par with the artfulness of Charlie Kaufman’s "Synechdoche, New York." Glowworm doesn’t just unfold into a simple conclusion — rather, with each scene, it ramps up with more imagination, more profundity, and more questions that linger far beyond curtain call.

Because the story will take you to “crazy town” and back, it’s important, if you see it, to remember that it all comes down to the Goat.

A comic and sometimes crude narrator, the pathetic and doomed Goat is inside all of the characters he creates for us. At the end of each tale, his struggle begins to seep through theirs until we flicker back completely to the Goat’s consciousness. This results in the same story being told more than once — and the distinction between the real world and fantasy world blurring slightly. It’s confusing at times, but ultimately, a lovely and well-executed concept.

The Goat, in my mind, is an epic ars poetica, demonstrating that the struggle to create in the face of a disappointing and unappreciative world is part-and-parcel with the struggle of life itself.

Repeatedly, the goat reflects that he is emphatically alone and always in pain. Yet, inspired by the tiny, persistent light of a glowworm (a companion on the trash heap), he summons the strength and the will to endure — to create another story. To create, in spite of failure or empty seats. To live, in spite of death.

That message is made all the more poignant — and terrifyingly real — by the unfortunate loss of the actor originally cast to play the Goat, Mark Chamberlin, who died last month at age 55 following a bike accident. Chamberlin's memory was omnipresent throughout the performance I saw — from co-artistic director Paul Morgan Stetler’s slightly choked-up welcome speech, to company member Stephanie Timm’s beautiful program note, to Michael Patten’s haunting song after one of the many deaths in the play.

The only comforting segue I can offer is that I think the theater company would have made its departed friend more than proud. 

It’s unusual when this team of seasoned Seattle actors doesn’t pull through for us. However, in scripts they select, you can tell they have so much more to sink their teeth into. Their ensemble work here — for example, in the horse-race scene — is so expert in its simple, effective direction, I feel like they’re teaching me to remember what theater is supposed to be about: less reality, more truth. (I probably stole that line from a company member directly.)

At first, Patten’s operation of the life-size goat puppet, which rolls alongside him on a cart, is distracting. The clumsy ventriloquism requires that Patten mostly look down and deliver his lines to the back of the fake goat’s head — which feels a bit claustrophobic, next to the other actors who are filling the room with their performances.

But it’s a good thing that Patten doesn’t come out dressed like an anthropomorphized Lion King-style version of a goat — there is a parallel accomplishment in costuming in the play; bravo to Harmony Arnold for her hilarious conceptualizing of the unicorn – because this goat isn’t destined for Broadway.  

This philosopher-goat is designed for a creakier dispensation of wisdom. And in that way, the primitive armature controlling his head and mouth is perfect. And feeling discomfort watching it becomes an important part of believing the goat’s sincere distress in the midst of a ludicrous, whimsical concept.

The balance of humor and tragedy wouldn’t be effective without the strange goat puppet — nor without the solid performances by Peter Dylan O’Connor, Jennifer Lee Taylor and Patten, who plays both the goat and a slew of other characters (thankfully, because otherwise we’d never see his face).

Their slapstick humor and vulnerable exchanges coexist impressively; to ricochet between dying and taking a slapstick blow to the crotch is no easy feat.

Taylor plays a mermaid with all the sass and vinegar of a shop owner on "EastEnders" and all the superiority of a Victorian governess. (Note: The play is set in Ireland, one detail I can’t really figure). She’s really good when trading barbs with Halliwell, played marvelously by O’Connor, who takes over the stage at every entrance with the power and energy of a freight train.

All told, the physical realization of the story’s setting couldn’t be more perfect.

A clap of thunder. Slivers of moonlight. A stray newspaper. A small green flashlight waved in the air to show the glowworm. Pieces of miscellaneous fabric peppered on the actor’s costumes. O’Connor’s terrible (and wonderful) mustache. The charming spoken stage direction: “Frogs hop.”  These are some of the few connections we have to a physical world, which the Goat can’t fully experience since a taxidermist has literally gouged out all his senses. Everything for him depends on the inner world he creates.

So for a backdrop, Benington — the scenic designer as well as director — gives us a giant paper moon, which, before it is illuminated, looks a bit like the bottom of a birdcage, lined in faded newsprint. It’s an ingenious detail for a setting that is both trash dump and dreamscape.

And for a set: a subtle ellipse on the stage’s surface, distinguished only by a glossy layer of black paint, indicating a lake, which giant swans, doubling as scenic carts, float onto to help complete the interior scenes.

The silhouettes of those beautiful — and famously aggressive — creatures against the moon are beautiful and ominous, just like the poetry woven throughout this script, in which playwright Glen Berger seems to juggle all of life’s hope, wonder, and fear — in less than three hours.

And he keeps us laughing throughout.

Maybe it’s just Patten’s inflection when he takes on the goat’s voice (it sounds similar to Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy), or MJ Seiber’s endearing clumsiness, but the play achieves a consistent air of levity, which keeps us breathing through all the difficult lessons it teaches, which I can’t resist trying to summarize:

Everyone is lonely, even the taxidermist. Domestic bliss is the same argument repeated over and over again. Love is as disposable as a tram ticket, if you want it to be. Mermaids are just beautiful murderers. In war, arms fly off like sparrows. “The greatest of men was born in a barn.” Ads, even when they’re junk, become a part of us. Invention is a form of romance. A toilet flush is nature harnessed (twice). A goat’s bleat is pain and happiness in the same sound. Sometimes trousers are all a man has. Language is a memory game, half forgotten. Youth is fleeting. Love is betrayal in waiting. Maggots are inevitable. Happiness is just a dream. The storyteller is alone. And so is the audience. After the play is over, it’s us who must leave the theatre — and face a cold night without the comfort of all those characters we’ve just started to trust. 

Above all the goat’s wisdom, one thing rings very true: if life seems dim, it’s only because we have had a chance to experience days full of light. 

After this play, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the days of spring felt a tiny bit bleak.

If you go: “O Lovely Glowworm” runs through May 14 at the Erickson Theater, 1524 Harvard Ave. in Seattle. Tickets $5 to $25 from Brown Paper Tickets online or by phone, 1-800-838-3006.


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