PURE Theatre Company
Running through Feb. 18
PURE Theatre
The Cigar Factory
701 East Bay St.

Seattle writer/performer John Paulsen’s one-man show Doolymoog is probably the modern theatrical incarnation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson’s 1919 novel dealt with what he called “pathetic grotesques,” character portraits of the ugly truth about people in their loneliness. Paulsen has modernized the idea, placing it in the context of isolation and loss spanning all time.

PURE Theatre proves the perfect venue for Paulsen, with its intimacy and, enhanced by an effective lighting design, sometimes cramped feeling.

Paulsen’s style can’t be described in one word. It’s creative, imaginative, at times charming and at others eerie (sometimes both simultaneously), and for the most part, engaging. Doolymoog is presented as a series of character “sketches” with brief transitional pieces in between, plus a prologue. The character pieces are mostly excellent, but the short transitions — most just a minute or shorter — leave us feeling that Paulsen perhaps missed the boat, if only by a few seconds.

These smaller vignettes obviously mean something to him, but their meanings aren’t always clear to the audience. They appear to be images or scenes arrived at through exercises with director George Lewis — but sometimes even impressive or arresting images by themselves aren’t enough.

Especially with his lengthier character sketches for comparison. Paulsen’s characterizations are his strong point. There’s Henry, a man telling his teddy bear about a date he’s planning (which takes a sad turn when you find out who the date’s supposed to be with). Then in “A Town Somewhere,” Sidney and Anderson are survivors of the apocalypse who write letters to each other by flashlight as they try to cope with the silence. In “Greg,” the title character holds a picnic to honor his artistic inspiration. And the characters in “The Blue Comet Café” are grotesques who inhabit a club that would appear right at home in a David Lynch film.

Paulsen — whose movement studies have included Meyerhold’s biomechanics (in which learning to control the physical body is a process to inner character development) — clearly has mastery of his instrument as an actor. His putty-like body melts into different characters with ease; each convincing voice is distinctive to the person he’s portraying. When he assumes the character of Gretchen, a young girl awkwardly singing a song about passion and forcing uncomfortable accompanying gestures, you just want to scoop him up and hug him.

The transitions and some of the smaller pieces, however, don’t provide enough of a thread. Does something have to have cohesion for it to be a good piece of theatre? Is that what separates it from performance art? The distinguishing thing about European mime — what makes it much better, and much different, from students farting around with the concept of mime — is a commitment to fleshing out character and sticking with it. And Paulsen doesn’t do that in his smaller pieces. Some might say that’s not detrimental to a performance, but when strong characterizations are abandoned for oblique abstractions, it takes a toll.

Which is not to say that Paulsen is merely farting around. He’s highly skilled. His characters have a sad humor about them; their stories are touching. Yet his talent shines through much better in the longer sketches than in the more abstract transitional pieces. He might have a much more effective production if he would keep the audience involved in those portraits. As it is, Doolymoog is missing something. The sense of humanity that is so touching in Paulsen’s characters, which he works so hard to convey, falls away in the transitions, leaving us feeling like we missed out on the full connection.

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