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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
by Nirmala Nataraj on Jun 30, 2005
Since the ancient Greeks produced high dramas and low comedies chronicling the prurient histories of gods and heroes -- adultery, orgies, and incest have been stock motifs in the mises en scene of a proper stage. In much the same way, Edward Albee's Tony-Award winning play, "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy", takes its cue from the blatantly carnal urges of classical theater.
While the works of Aeschylus and his contemporaries usually had some unspeakable controversy at their center, the imagined offense was seldom in the foreground; rather, it hunkered ominously in the wings, violently acknowledged but scarcely perceptible. This is a gimmick that enshrouds Albee's titular Sylvia, who simultaneously represents the trespass of social boundaries, and the icky secret that has audiences alternately gasping and guffawing. "The Goat" is a bolt from the blue, the closest to "shocking" you're likely to see in modern theatre, a monster so outrageous it may as well be mythical.
Most critics reviewing "The Goat" are careful to keep mum about what makes it controversial, and even the American Conservatory Theater minces words in its playbill, perhaps so as not to offend the sensibilities of its sophisticated viewing public. But there are no two ways about it: Albee's play is, simply, about Martin, a man at the peak of his glory who has a big secret: he is having sex with a goat.
While Martin's penchant for livestock is hardly the main point of the play, it's a subject that continues to amass attention and scandal. The issue isn't so much that bestiality is a topic people consider too taboo to be dealt with; it's just that few writers (especially ones as well-respected as Albee) have ever devoted an entire play to it. Indeed, Albee's engagement with a story that lies so beyond the scope of an expected or permissible experience is what has audiences stupefied.
Within the first fifteen minutes of watching "The Goat", one wonders such a ridiculous storyline could possibly be sustained over the course of two hours. Strangely yet obviously, it's the uncharted territory that makes the drama so wickedly pleasing. We're all accustomed to love triangles and webs of betrayal, but throw a goat in there somewhere, and it screws with the entire formula. Even Martin's wife Stevie complains that rules on how to deal with such a sordid disloyalty don't even exist.
Albee's oeuvre is generally abrasive, full of dueling husbands and wives and explosive confrontations that have characters slamming into the walls of their carefully constructed fantasies. Thus, the initial scene of "The Goat", which has Martin (played by Don R. McManus) and Stevie (played by Pamela Reed) basking in the connubial glow of their beautifully appointed living room, is uneasy in its peacefulness, auguring all manner of pandemonium. Indeed, it's patently clear that Albee's setting his characters up for a cruel fall, so the beginning of the play is almost intentionally eerie in its conventions.
Given Albee's familiarity with midlife crises, it's darkly appropriate that the curtain rises on Martin's 50th birthday. Apparently, Martin is at his pinnacle -- he's a famous architect who's collected the prestigious Pritzker Prize for achievement in his field, and he's the mastermind behind an innovative city planning project on the American prairie. Things start to get hairy when Martin confesses his extramarital object of desire: a goat he met while hunting for a countryside home, whom he tenderly refers to as Sylvia. The news soon reaches his wife.
Reed's Stevie is a powerhouse, alternating between wry comedienne and livid spurned wife. The long drawn out conversation between Stevie and Martin reminded me of the circular, never-ending arguments that always occur on the cusp of a bad breakup. Stevie's desire to understand Martin's newfound love interest is only matched by her inability to listen to his story, and her attempt to cover up her pain with barbed remarks is what rings most true in this scene.
The way "The Goat" is set up is that the first scene is a comedy, the second a drama, and the last a tragedy, so the pacing changes tremendously from one section to the next. Albee is consciously going for the throat in the same way the great tragedians of yore did. However, Martin's Aristotleian fall from greatness is pallid and unconvincing. Given the self-contained screaming matches of the play, what the public think isn't a powerful enough reason for Martin to discontinue his affair with Sylvia. Along with this minor blip, and the characters' occasionally annoying meta-theatrical self-awareness, the two supporting actors are severely underutilized.
Martin and Stevie's gay 17-year old son Ross (played by Charles Shaw Robinson) is full of angst, but his parents send him off to his bedroom, while he half-poignantly notes that he'll be crying himself to sleep as they suss out the Sylvia problem. Robinson's nervous frustration is on point -- no doubt, he'd be aghast at the fact that his father fornicates with barnyard animals -- but his hostility toward Martin after the Sylvia secret is divulged seems to require a backstory that Albee never gives us. Additionally, Ross abruptly switches gears in the last scene, and the underlying Freudian dynamic between him and Martin feels forced.
Also, Joseph Parks' Billy is smugly inconsequential, breezing in and out of Martin's home with no real reason for ruining his friend's life. Ross and Billy never feel like more than mere instruments to move the action along, which is partially why the tragic elements of the tale don't completely mesh. Tragedy usually requires more than a couple major players, despite how stellar McManus and Reed are as the married couple.
Despite how easy it is to not feel sorry for Martin, the final climactic scene is imbued with pathos, what with its underlying trope of failed middle class values. While we may chide Martin for expecting empathy from Stevie and maintaining that he loves both her and Sylvia, it's hard to not find his utter defenselessness stirring. Albee knows that Martin's inability to verbally convey the fundamentally transportive experience he underwent with Sylvia is far more effective than the verbal gymnastics of the play.
It's the spaces of speechlessness that are most powerful, as when Martin finds himself incapable of explaining why he "loves" Sylvia, and can only repeat "Those eyes, those eyes." Sylvia is a stand-in for what is fundamentally beyond reason, and the characters continually try to use language to rein in that unruly terrain of the unknown. When Martin talks about a self-help group for people who are into bestiality, he relates the story of a woman who was repeatedly raped by her father and brother as a young child. The audience becomes uncomfortably silent, but Stevie breaks the silence when she quips, "So she took up with a dog?"
Humor becomes an unguent for the pain or pleasure that language simply doesn't have room to accommodate. And ultimately, Albee understands that it's the inability to make sense of our worlds that has the power to destroy seemingly close relationships and indeed, our own lives. In the end, it's this crystal clear realization that makes "The Goat" so shocking and yet so far from inappropriate.
"The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" runs through July 17 at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)
by Nirmala Nataraj on Jun 30, 2005