Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Emily Schwartz.
Edward Albee, throughout his career, has had no difficulty pushing limits. His absurdist plays often ask us to re-evaluate how we see ourselves and our actions. But there has been no single play of his that does this to a greater extent than his 2002 Tony Award-winning The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? In a compact, ninety-minute drama, Albee once again strips the human condition bare and invites us to examine the limits of our acceptance. Interrobang Theatre’s new production of the play shows Albee’s predilection for setting our world on its end, leaving theatre-goers with potentially troubling new information about themselves.
The Goat introduces us to Martin (Tom Jansson) and Stevie (Elana Elyce), a highly educated, liberal, very well-matched couple who, for decades, have been deeply in love. Neither would ever even consider having an affair, until Martin one day finds himself thoroughly infatuated by Sylvia, who happens to be a goat. When the affair becomes known to Stevie, their carefully manufactured world caves in. Albee uses bestiality here as a Great Taboo, but the reality is that he is asking us just how far can you go with acceptance? It is easy to excoriate Martin for an affair with a goat, but if his new love were, instead, another woman or another man, or perhaps if he has discovered an interest in some uncomfortable kink, how would you handle it? How should you handle it? That is really what Albee is asking in this play: where do we draw the line…and why?
In order to get his message across clearly, Albee carefully allows us to see both sides of the equation. With Stevie, we face with shock and horror the revelation that her husband is, to use the word most frequently thrown out in the play, a “goat-f***er.” Her righteous anger and indignation (which Elyce shows in a variety of ways) might be our reaction as well. But Albee doesn’t paint Martin as a caricature. On the contrary, the character’s descriptions of how he met and fell in love with Sylvia are beautiful and poetic…or would be if she were not a goat. Jansson shows us a faithful husband whose sudden and unasked-for infatuation (and lust) jeopardizes his marriage, his standing in the community, and his career as an award-winning architect, but who can’t seem to fault himself because he is so deeply in love that he can see nothing wrong. Even recounting a visit to a support group (there are bestiality support groups?), he can’t see himself in any of the stories of shame he hears because he feels no shame, only sincere love, and how can love be bad?
Two other characters, Martin’s 17-year-old gay son Billy (Ryan Liddell) and his best friend Ross (Armando Reyes), validate the obvious reaction to this revelation. But it isn’t always that simple: Billy, in particular, fights between his love for his father and his utter revulsion at what he has done; just how much are we defined by our worst acts? Ross represents society at large, not even trying to see through the outrage to the man, as any news report of bestiality will attest would be the clear reaction of most people. But for Billy and Stevie, Martin is family. Has he suddenly become some other because he has done something that is, to them, unspeakable? For Stevie, this is a man who has been her everything for decades. As she works through her understandable anger, she can’t help pausing to admire a pun he makes or to reflect on specific diction and grammar: it is who they have been forever. Can it just…vanish? On the other hand, if bestiality doesn’t do it, what would?
This is Interrobang’s first play performed in its new residency at Rivendell Theatre, and director James Yost makes good use of the space, playing scenes out in every corner and all throughout Kerry Lee Chipman’s beautiful set. Property designer Melanie Hatch has had her job cut out for her—Stevie tends to throw things when she is angry—and comes through well (except for a goat that somehow more closely resembles a small cow), and sound design by Erik Siegling and lighting by Richie Vavrina provide a realistic thunderstorm at the climax. Yost has worked well with his actors to bring out powerful performances, though I’d argue that he sacrifices some of Albee’s absurdist humor along the way. There are laughs in this show, but there might have been more, and our laughter at this situation makes us complicit: we need to understand what we are laughing at or why we are laughing with. Albee excels in this kind of uncomfortable territory. It’s much the same as the final moment of Jonathan Demme’s 1992 film Silence of the Lambs, when we laugh at the thought of a man being eaten by a cannibal. How can we even think that way? Like Demme, Albee knows how to manipulate an audience, and this play presents a huge challenge to the director of just how to find the line between its humor and pathos.
Ultimately, though, it is in the hands of Jansson and Elyce, and they both come up with excellent performances: Martin, the dreamy-eyed lover trying to figure out how to balance the twin loves of his life, and Stevie, the wronged wife still in love with her husband. Neither character is cut and dried; neither is easy to interpret. Both actors do superb jobs. For Jansson, his eyes tell the story: whether he is in thrall of his infatuation of trying to deal with the real-world consequences, we can see through to his feelings in his eyes. For Elyce, it is more the full body: stiff and distancing in Stevie’s anger, yet soft and tender in moments when she lets her guard down. It is Stevie who has the most compelling arc in this play, and Elyce is up to the challenge, challenging us at the same time to understand our own reactions to the situation. Do we leave the theatre repulsed, shocked, or perhaps self-reflective? If repulsed…why? Is the line of our revulsion bestiality? Is that where we stop being tolerant and accepting?
Albee is never going to go for the easy answers, equations that balance with mathematical precision. The Goat is one of the most provocative plays in a highly provocative career, and it challenges its audience as much as its characters. It is aimed at a liberal audience, and it asks them to question their values and their truths. That might be far more uncomfortable in the long run than bestiality.
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia is an Interrobang Theatre presentation now playing at the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Rd, Chicago, until Oct 6. Performance times vary; check the website at Interrobang Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.