The principal conceit of O Lovely Glowworm, or Scenes of Great Beauty is that the play's interminable string of uneven scenes -- few of which approach beauty, let alone greatness -- are the products of the overactive imagination of a profoundly melancholy goat.
Said goat, a figment of playwright Glen Berger's surreal imagination, has reportedly spent 15 years before, during and after Work War I tied to a post near a garbage dump outside the hovel of his owners, a would-be inventor named Macmann (Philip Mills), whose fondest wish is to invent a flushable toilet so that his name would be attached to every privy in Ireland, and his mother (Mairin Lee), whose fondest wish is to die.
It goes on like this for almost three hours, with the goat (animated via remote control and voiced by Tobie L. Windham) mostly at center stage. Windham spends much of the play's first act crouched on the roof of the aforementioned hovel as he gives voice to the goat's fantasies of life as a tramcar conductor, or perhaps as a racehorse or dog. The goat repeatedly tells us that he is deaf, blind and suffering from an undefined and unbearable pain. Windham bays and bleats for relief, which the goat gets toward the end of Act I, when Macmann finally summons the nerve to shoot the pathetic creature in the head.
Of course, we are not yet rid of the intolerable beast, who continues to conjure arbitrary daydreams for his perverse amusement, if not ours. In plodding succession, he summons, kills off and then reanimates a Belgian-front deserter named Marveaux (Kyle Schaefer), his childhood chum Halliwell (David Jacobs), and Philomel (Emily Kitchens), a mermaid who lures men to their doom from an island in the middle of a whirlpool-and-eddy-infested lake.
Why should we buy into this, why should we believe the fevered musing of a deranged goat? His scenarios are presented to us as if they must contain clues to not just the goat's suffering but ours, too. They are meant to be parables, these dismal tales of misfortune and woe, but Berger's goat is so capricious and stands in such contempt of its creations -- changing their circumstances (at times sadistically) -- that the perspective is simply not to be trusted.
The set only compounds the signal-to-noise ratio. The theater at Zeum is a terrible place to see a play, but the Glowworm set is like a David Best sculpture gone bad. I liked the idea of hiding Belle Epoque dioramas in compartments carved out of mountains of trash, but they faced the wide splay of seats almost straight on. How easy it would have been to tilt the compartment on stage left a bit to stage right so that its interiors could be better viewed by those sitting house left. Same problem for the blacksmith's workshop and mermaid lair perched above it on stage right. And if you are sitting in one of the back rows, forget about seeing the action (if you can call actors crawling on the floor "action") downstage. This place is bad enough for theater -- such choices only make the experience worse.
All that said, at times the play is quite funny in its sense of the absurd (for example, the mundane musing revealed in the firing-squad scene), and I liked the scene between Jacobs and Kitchens in which Halliwell finally agrees to permit the duplicitous Philomel to shave his neck with a straight razor. I also believed Lee as the mother, who covers her ears with pillows and puts a chamber pot over her head whenever her Pollyanna-like son sings his idiotic songs of devotion. That seemed honest enough, and hats off to Mills for selling the sap hard. But mostly I shared the unscripted sentiments of Jacobs, who uttered an exasperated and unprintable epithet when the carabiners for his fly system became momentary tangled. Dude: I feel your pain.
The A.C.T. M.F.A. production of O Lovely Glowworm, or Scenes of Great Beauty runs through February 7, 2010 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit act-sf.org.