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Monday, 21 January 2013 13:56

The Goat: or Who is Sylvia?

Written by Steve Callahan
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The Goat:  or Who is Sylvia? / John Lamb

Edward Albee just never tires of being brilliant.   The St. Louis Actors Studio has opened a production of Albee’s "The Goat: or Who is Sylvia?"  It’s directed by Wayne Salomon, and it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of theatre.  It is certainly the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Gaslight Theatre—and one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in some years.  It’s passionate; it’s violent;  and ultimately it’s bloody—yet it’s suffused with Albee’s distinctive delicate wit.

"The Goat" is certainly not for everyone. To say that it’s controversial is an understatement indeed. There seems to be great disagreement (particularly between men and women) as to whether this play is acceptable—or even comprehensible.

“Bestiality”: that term is so clinical, so Kraft-Ebbing, so seemingly perverted. Do I need a “spoiler alert” to suggest that I simply cannot discuss this play without telling you that it’s about a man whose mistress, Sylvia, is a goat?

Martin is at the peak of his career as an architect. He’s just won the equivalent of the Nobel prize for architecture and is beginning a project to make a vast city of the future rise from the plains of Kansas. His is a perfect marriage—loving, faithful, enlightened—and fun. But it all comes crashing down when his secret is revealed. It comes crashing, crashing, monumentally crashing down.

John Pierson gives a phenomenal performance as Martin. It’s quite flawless. A good man, of considerable charm and grace, he finds that his strange infatuation has blown his world to the skies. He stands there, pummeled and battered, as great fragments of his marriage (not to mention the occasional piece of crockery) shower down on him. Pierson’s utter, profound emotional commitment forces us to take this (let’s face it, rather ludicrous) premise quite seriously. This commitment and power lets Albee’s art achieve its goal—a true sense of tragedy. (The erudite Mr. Albee is not, of course, unaware that our word “tragedy” derives from the Greek for “goat song”.)

Nancy Bell plays Stevie, the betrayed wife, and she’s a splendid match for Pierson in this emotional Vesuvius of a play. She’s smart, trim, attractive, fashionable, successful, happy—and good. How could this happen to her? She can’t understand. She can’t understand when Martin desperately tries to explain that he’s truly in love with Sylvia—and with Stevie. Having flung her emotions at Martin, in her horror and frustration she flings all the china, furniture and art works at him. And in the end she flings herself to the floor and her anguish to the skies with a soul-wrenching howl of grief.

Strong supporting roles are played by William Roth as Ross, Martin’s best friend (who rats on him) and by Scott Anthony Joy as Billy, the emotionally awkward, slightly geeky homosexual teen-aged son. Both do fine work.

Patrick Huber, scenic designer, gives us a beautiful up-scale living room.
Is this play a tragedy? Aristotle’s near sacred definition of tragedy involves:

* a great man (the “Nobel Prize” of architecture?)
* falling to disaster through some mistake—which might be mere accident (as in Oedipus),
* and arousing our pity (at his downfall) and fear (that something similar might happen to us).

To me this play—and this production—meet those criteria. And Albee generously meets an additional Aristotelian criterion: that the story be told “in language with pleasurable accessories”. Albee’s characters delight in language, and even in the heat of battle Martin and Stevie (like George and Martha) retain an odd kind of objectivity that let’s them poke little bits of fun at each other about idiosyncracies of grammar and syntax.

But Albee is addressing one theme in addition to that of Martin’s tragic fall. He asks us to reconsider our attitudes about the limits of erotic love. Set aside the aspect of breeding (certainly no concern in the case of a man and a goat) and let’s define “erotic” as an urge for the pleasure of physical intimacy. We find societies tabooing—or embracing—myriad erotic liaisons: man and man, man and child, man and animal. Dare you ask a new mother whether nursing is non-erotic? Does a twelve-year old girl melt when her beautiful horse breathes warmly into her ear?

This is strange territory that only a writer of Albee’s stature can safely tread.

"The Goat", produced at the St. Louis Actors Studio, is wonderfully fine theatre. My congratulations to director Wayne Saloman and his entire company. The show plays at the Gaslight through February third.

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