EDWARD ALBEE’S THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?
With ironic flourish, as background soundtrack, Billy Holiday’s whimsical “Them There Eyes” opens Berkshire Theater Group’s brilliant production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”. It was, according to Martin, a world-renowned, prize-winning architect, nearing his 50th birthday, comfortably secure in his perfectly fidelitous 25 year marriage, “those eyes” on a goat he sees in a field while on a country house search that changes his life. "The Goat"s ostensible topics are bestiality (a term uttered just once in the entire play) or infidelity but it's really about morality. And, no apter time to reintroduce Albee’s 2002 Tony Award winning play; in the Trump era where amorality is the norm why not contemplate the morality of love in abnormal form? (Transparency note: I’ve worked with director Eric Hill and two of the actors in this play in seasons past at BTG.)
In scene 1, the troubled Martin, perfectly played by David Adkins who was as equally adept in Albee’s “Zoo Story” last fall, reveals his secret love for the goat Sylvia to his best friend, television producer Ross, played with guy-next-door incredulity by Josh Aaron McCabe. Ross tips off Martin’s wife, Stevie, portrayed by a magnificent Jennifer Van Dyke (seen in last year’s “Petrified Forest”). The ensuing confrontation in scene 2, which briefly involves their gay teenage son Billy -a tough role negotiated skillfully by Berkshire’s own Evan Silverstein - moves way beyond a wife wronged.
Director Eric Hill in casting and in production design keeps the marital tragedy on affluent, sophisticated, WASP turf, but the battlefield between Martin and Stevie is primal, their war-of words, graphic, lacerating and peppered with subversive humor. (Martin’s recounting of cases from an animal lovers’ therapy group is particularly darkly hilarious.) Martin and Stevie spar with word games, linguistic one-upsmanship and literary allusions; Stevie mockingly implores“Who is Sylvia? What is she? “ quoting Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”. Corrected by Martin for a metaphoric inaccuracy, Stevie retaliates, “women in deep woe often mix their metaphors”. Martin insists Stevie doesn’t understand; his love for Sylva goes beyond just sex, it’s “pure”. By the end of scene 2, Stevie’s initial disbelief has morphed painfully into abject fury. She vows to bring Martin down as low as he has brought her.
Eric Hill, as usual, directs with invisible hand and with laser focus on text. This “Goat” transacts with more clarity and precision on the small Unicorn stage in Stockbridge than in a major and more elaborate production in London’s West End that I saw last year. In the final scene 3 (the first when Holiday’s tune about innocent lust isn’t used) undiluted tragedy prevails. The play’s most dramatically treacherous episode is an angry, physical confrontation between Billy and his father. Their conciliatory embrace that momentarily becomes sexual is witnessed accidentally by a repulsed Ross. Albee’s purpose here puzzled me before but it’s revelatory in this BTG production. What are the boundaries of our moral code? If you don’t want to tangle with these kinds of notions, Albee ain’t for you.
The devastating finale transcends any shock that has come before. Stevie gets revenge. “I am done”, intones Martin. It wasn’t the bestiality or the infidelity that motivates Stevie in the end; it was because “she loved you, you say, as much as I do.” A devastated Martin weeps “I’m sorry.” Apologies to whom? Stevie? Sylvia? Both? Albee doesn’t just cut to the bone. He scrapes when he gets there.