Review: O Lovely Glowworm by Glen Berger. Produced by New Century Theatre Company. Directed by Roger Benington. With Gretchen Krich, Peter Dylan O’Connor, M.J. Sieber, Brian Claudio Smith, Jennifer Lee Taylor and Michael Patten as The Goat. Now through May 14 at Erickson Theatre, 1524 Harvard Avenue, Capitol Hill.
New Century Theatre Company’s current production of Glen Berger’s O Lovely Glowworm is subtitled “…or scenes of great beauty”. It’s a subtitle that lives up to its promise…”Glowworm” is a dreamy trip through time and space as seen through the eyes of a….goat. A dead, stuffed goat. Yes, it’s a play about a stuffed dead goat and his imaginative ramblings through the psyche of the Irish countryside circa WWI but New Century’s skillful staging of the play manages to be charming, thoughtful, profound, deeply moving and frequently very, very funny under the smart direction of Roger Benington and with the usual highly skilled New Century cast headed by Michael Patten, as the Goat, with Gretchen Krich, Peter Dylan O’Connor, M.J. Sieber, Brian Claudio Smith and Jennifer Lee Taylor. It’s the best thing on a Seattle theater stage right now.
A play that stars a dead, stuffed goat would seem to be problematic and hard to connect with, but I think we’re all grown up people here, (or, at least I hope so) and we can understand the theatrical and dramatic use of metaphor, can’t we? It also helps matters that the Goat is performed by a very capable Seattle actor, Michael Patten, and while the Goat is physically present on stage, (a very convincing, realistic and life size puppet by Brian Kooser) the actor is giving the performance and not the puppet. Mr. Patten is on stage at all times providing both movement and voice to the character and given the behind the scenes tragedy that led to Mr. Patten’s casting in the role, it’s both a tribute to the actor’s skill and charisma that it’s such a powerful and emotionally convincing performance. (Seattle actor Mark Chamberlin was originally cast in the role but died suddenly last month a few weeks into the rehearsals for “Glowworm”. Mr. Patten, a New Century company member and friend of Mr. Chamberlin stepped into the role and had 16 days of rehearsal time before the play opened.)
But “Goat” isn’t the only character to inhabit the world of “Glowworm”. The premise of the play, is that Goat is now existing in a twilight world between life and death, and without the power to use any of his senses, he creates his own inner world populated, perhaps, by humans from his mortal existence as well as cultural elements from the world he lived in, consisting primarily of advertisements on the rubbish collected outside the Goat’s former home. The goat’s owner, a dreamy boy who wants to be an inventor, and a reluctant WW I soldier figure prominently in the Goat’s story, but so does a siren like mermaid and a unicorn both imagined from advertising at the time. The various stories the Goat tells, at first seemingly disparate, all begin to merge together into one narrative flow as the characters encounter each other in a series of picaresque adventures in the Irish countryside that culminate in happiness for some, (including the invention of the modern flush toilet) and not so much happiness for others. Meanwhile, the Goat continues to explore his “scenes of great beauty”.
O Lovely Glowworm casts a spell on the audience as it weaves its stories together and that’s largely due to the magical text of playwright Glen Berger and his facility at creating this believably ethereal world that can evoke the art of Ionesco or Caryl Churchill or Lewis Carroll or even Monty Python to create something that manages to be unique and profound. It’s also at times, very funny, due to both the writing and creation of the characters as well as to the superb performances of the actors playing them. But, I do have to note that at times, the pace of the piece can be a bit sluggish; I don’t know if it’s in the writing, the directing, the nerves of the opening night actors or some combination of some, or all of the above, but there were a few moments in the show where you wish it moved a bit faster and with a 2 and a half hour playing time, the show is a bit long for the story being told. “Glowworm” was written over a period of time but only recently performed publicly…it sometimes feels like the play is 90% there, but could use a final polish…maybe an intensive collaborative production between the playwright and a top theater director in a workshop setting? O Lovely Glowworm feels like a beautiful gem that needs just a bit more cutting and polishing to make it a canonical work.
I’ve praised Mr. Patten’s excellent performance, but the entire company is tip top and most of them are familiar to Seattle stage fans. M.J. Sieber as the bumbling, love struck, military shirker Marveaux strikes a perfect note between the clownishness of the character and his naive humanity. Mr. Sieber’s Marveaux is the second Irish character he’s played within a year and I have to say I much prefer this portrayal/production over last fall’s off kilter The Lieutenant of Inishmore at ACT…and, his Irish accent is much improved!
Also luminous was Jennifer Lee Taylor as the object of Marveaux’s affections, an Irish mermaid named Philomel. Her sardonic and matter-of-fact fairy creature was part Gibson Girl, part Siren, and part heavy lidded drag queen too bored to be bothered. She was well matched with the other member of the Marveaux/Philomel triangle, Peter Dylan O’Connor’s Halliwell, a childhood friend of Marveaux’s who ends up as his rival for Philomel’s affections. Both Ms Taylor and Mr. O’Connor are masterful comedians and many of the laughs in the play are generated by their robust performances.
The other storyline in “Glowworm” concerns the former owner of the Goat, Macmann, an Irish lad who dreams of being a great inventor, but tends to get sidetracked by joys of the heart. Brian Claudio Smith’s performance requires him to age from a school age lad to an embittered adult and the actor quite convincingly plays both the stupidity and the charm of the self-deluded character with wit and warmth. In dual roles as his aged mother and eventual sweetheart, Gretchen Krich proves her versatility at playing both an aged, ham handed Irish crone and a comely demure young lass all in the span of a two act play. Their performances only add to the overall excellence of this production.
Finally, some kudos to the exceptional design team and the excellent work by Andrew D. Smith, (Lighting); Harmony Arnold, (Costumes) and Robertson Witmer (Sound). All elements of this show are top notch but none more so than the excellent set design by Roger Benington, which uses simple elements for maximum interest and artistic integrity. And, the excellence of the set design is only compounded by the fact that Mr. Benington is also the director of this production, so it’s nice to see that multi-tasking is alive and well in Seattle theater. It’s also to Mr. Benington’s credit, that O Lovely Glowworm is as well directed as his previous show, WET’s Sextet from last fall…he’s joining the list of go to directors for staging interesting, new works by contemporary playwrights like Glen Berger and Tommy Smith.
It’s been a bit of a dull winter/early spring theater-wise in Seattle. Revel in the fact that we finally have an interesting, evocative work full of “scenes of great beauty” on a Seattle stage. O Lovely Glowworm is most highly recommended.