It is a question of passion in Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”
Not the mass produced, test marketed variety of “passion” favored by copywriters, but the genuine article, that all-consuming fervor that brings liberation through annilation. We have forgotten that brand of passion, which is unfettered and wild like a beast. Civilization has house broken the beast in us.
There is no describing the play without taking on a shading of a Monty Python skit:
Martin, a successful and much heralded architect, happily married to his wonderful wife Stevie, proud father of Billy, finds his world collapsing about him when he falls in love with a goat. Do not allow that insufficient and wobbly synopsis to lead you to believe this is a play full of prat falls and boisterous guffaws.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Albee has often embedded elements into his writing which allow for his works to be viewed as theomachies in spirit. “Zoo Story” for one, and certainly “A Delicate Balance” with its overtones of both New and Old Testaments.
But “The Goat” is set in a different key. Here Albee cloaks himself in the armor of the ancient past and the old, old religion. Here Albee has returned to the roots of drama in an attempt perhaps to resurrect in his audience both a sense of catharsis and a shadowy memory of what true passion is, “passus”, from the Latin meaning “to suffer”.
In the work, Albee maintains Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, as well as the three Aristotelian unities of time, place and action. And its blood splattered conclusion recalls Euripides’ “The Bacchae” as well as the rites of Dionysus from which evolved “theatre” itself.
Like all great characters in Greek drama, Martin’s downfall is fueled by his ungovernable passion, a flaw perhaps Albee sees in the society about him. “Is there anything we don’t get off on?” cries Martin in defense of his own obsession. Albee playfully toys with his audience by referencing in his piece other dramas which seem to serve as touchstones for his effort.
Early on Martin alludes to the Eurmenides, the three winged harpies who pursue those guilty of the foulest crimes. At one point when his son groans in exasperation, “Oh Dad,” Martin fires back “Poor dad.” Lastly, Stevie, Martin’s wife, as her world crashes down about her, bemoans, “How it shatters the glass.”
Here are allusions to Greek theatre, Arthur Kopit’s absurdist classic, “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad”, and Tennessee William’s “The Glass Menagerie” with the death of a unicorn, albeit figuratively. Thus, Albee reveals to us the literary lineages he merges into “The Goat”, i.e. Greek drama, and Theatre of the Absurd, within the frame work of a modern American tragedy. Not only does Albee touch all these bases, he tips his hat to us as he rounds into home.
Under Ken Sawyer’s adroit direction, the play confronts and challenges the audience on numerous levels, perhaps the most prickly being on the question of those rules and boundaries which bind, confine and define every aspect of our lives from the sanctity of our national borders to the social convention of those painted white lines on asphalt assuring our safekeeping from those 2000 pound machines hurling by us daily.
Albee also challenges the great facade of our “humanness” that we employ to establish our otherness along with the illusion of superiority from the Animal Kingdom. But Albee rips the veneer away revealing that the only choice we have is to be animals that love or animals that kill.
The outrageousness of Albee’s premise tricks us into lowering our defenses, the wit of the drama sets us up for the sucker punch, but it is the honesty of his character’s humanity that lands the blow. The majority of us have likely never given thought to bestiality, but many have known desires they were uncomfortable to discuss. We have seen in our most recent history how some in our nation viewed the desires of others as injurious to our society to the point of bringing them before the courts in hopes they can be halted.
Theatre gives an audience the intimacy of distance as it draws from them a willingness to imagine, and that audience that will let themselves be plunged into a performance finds a heightened sense of participation and can achieve a certain sense of integration with even the most grotesque of possibilities.
It is in the human heart to be drawn to the forbidden, the taboo. “The Goat” allows us to examine the effect of a “horrid want” on an individual and his family, as if that “horrid want” was our own. Theatre presents us the opportunity to judge our own sincerity and deceit, strength and weakness through the drama played out before us.
This is the catalyst for “catharsis”. A “cleansing” of the untruths we discover about ourselves. Like Shakespeare, the power of Albee’s material could likely survive the heavy handedness of those unequal to its demands, but in order to experience the true power of the piece it calls for a cast and crew who’s talents are up to the task, and the cast at the Los Angeles LGBT Center most assuredly are.
It is a small cast on a small set. But both Robert Selander’s set and the four cast members reflect the elegance and intelligence that radiates from producer Jon Imparato and Sawyer’s staging.
Matt Kirkwood as Ross the family friend and Spencer Morrissey as the son who has just ripened into his sexual identity bring solid performances to the stage, but the real fireworks of this play are found between Paul Witten and Ann Noble.
Witten as Martin is accustomed to imposing form and order on the world, who, by his actions, has overthrown himself and all about him into chaos. Witten deftly captures the agony and ecstasy of one suddenly facing the disturbing fact of what mysteries we are to ourselves, and plays each note to perfection.
Noble is an actress whose abilities and talents are well known to L.A.’s theatre-going audience. She can always be counted on to deliver a performance of the first caliber. That however is not the case here. Perhaps it was the material, or perhaps it was having Witten as a partner, but Noble’s performance exceeds anything this critic has seen from her before. As Stevie, the betrayed wife who will have her pound of flesh, Noble is nothing short of a revelation.
Edward Albee hadn’t had a new show on Broadway in two decades when “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” opened in 2002. It was worth the wait.
It earned Albee a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and his fourth Pulitzer Prize nomination, all deservedly so. The play is the quintessence of a “masterpiece”, and the production at the Los Angeles LGBT Center of “The Goat” resplendent in all its myriad nuances should not be missed.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
1125 N. McCadden Place
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Performances: Sept 19 – Nov 23
Friday & Saturday: 8pm