Navigator’ guides audience through steampunk adventure

Michael Haverty turns YA novel into sprawling, interactive action tale at The Goat Farm


  • StunGun Photography
  • AND MY LITTLE DOGS, TOO! Reay Kaplan’s Long Woman, with her Bog Hounds

My plus-one for the opening night of The Navigator completely adored 7 Stages’ sci-fi adventure play. As we spent the evening questing from one corner of The Goat Farm to another, she compared the experience to being in a movie and coined the term “steampunkin’ awesome!” to describe the show.

By the way, I should mention that this person turns 11 years old this month. That shouldn’t minimize the invention, scale and sheer fun of The Navigator, but could provide some perspective on its origins and goals. Director Michael Haverty adapted The Navigator from Eoin McNamee’s Young Adult novel of the same name. Judging from the theatrical version, the material presents a Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey, following in the footsteps of the likes of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and other youthful protagonists of pop culture. With 7 Stages’ Navigator, the specifics of what happen prove less important than how they’re presented.

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For instance, The Navigator begins with the audience gathered on a porch, members of the cast mingling among them. Kyle Brumley plays Owen, a boyish brooder struggling to support his impoverished mother, a mentally addled widow (Reay Kaplan). The spectators notice Owen and his mother approach from a distance, and the actors mutter derisive asides that provide Owen’s backstory. The audience may not catch every word, but you get the gist, like watching a Robert Altman movie with overlapping dialogue.

The audience follows Owen to various places in The Goat Farm, where the young man becomes caught up in an attack from The Harsh, ghoulish figures in full-length white coats like boogeymen from Dark City or “Doctor Who.” The Harsh wish to run time backwards, before the rise of mankind, but face opposition from the Resistors, a military-style force of humans who normally exist in some kind of time bubble. Among the Resistors, Owen meets a feisty young friend (Mandi Lee), a steadfast new mentor (Luis Hernandez) and a suspicious chancellor (Bryan Mercer, who doubles as an absent-minded professor).

It’s not always easy to sort out the exposition or figure out the meaning of portentous terms like “The Puissance,” but you don’t really have to - the archetypes and adventure dynamics are so familiar, the formula comes almost second nature. There’s a possible chosen one, a mysterious, all-important artifact, even a magnetic-style supernatural force a lot like, well, The Force from Star Wars. The performers all seize their roles with the appropriate larger-than-life spirit of derring-do, but prepare yourself for the occasional outbreak of pirate-acting and witch-acting.

While The Navigator’s chronological rules at times resist comprehension, the concept of time clicks with the production’s choices of design and location. The steampunk-style costumes and other objects blend lively historical periods, while The Goat Farm itself, as befits a former industrial space turned popular post-apocalyptic filming location, could represent somewhere from 100 years in the past or 100 years in the future. When shrieking, rattling trains go past, they may as well be providing the sound effects of the Harsh’s Great Machine in the North.

Explaining too much about The Navigator doesn’t convey the excitement of the show, which unfolds like a combination of high-speed scavenger hunt and fantasy action film. Haverty’s direction even emulates the cinematic “depth of field” by moving the actors great distances. The Navigator may lack the layered symbolism of last year’s Goat Farm environmental show, Rua/Wulf, but it’s got flamboyant villains on stilts, flashbacks shown by shadows, lupine body puppets called Bog Dogs and actual large-scale battle scenes with the audience serving as soldiers.

If you’ve always wanted to go to one of those interactive haunted houses that pop up this time of year, but thought it would be too silly or too scary, The Navigator provides a richer substitute. It may not be deep, but it’s wild creativity definitely qualifies as steampunkin’ awesome.

The Navigator. Through Oct. 13. 7 Stages. The Goat Farm, 1200 Foster Street. 8 p.m., Thu. - Sat., 7 p.m., Sun. 404-523-7647.