A Role in the Hay

Albee uses livestock and love to explore the nature of tragedy

Many reviews avoid mentioning it altogether; the ACT press release pussyfoots around it. But here at the Weekly there's no need for that, so I might as well come right out and tell you (if you don't know already) that Edward Albee's 2002 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? -- currently receiving its West Coast premiere at ACT -- revolves around a 50-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning architect by the name of Martin who fucks goats. Well, one goat, to be precise.

It makes sense for ACT to describe the play's premise under such euphemistic terms as "something truly terrible" and "something so far outside of 'normal,'" for the sound reason that if the company didn't, many of its subscribers would probably sooner spend the night playing bridge at the Steinbergs' than come to the theater. Drama critics, however, don't have that excuse. Reviews I have read about previous productions of The Goat aim at leaving the reader in suspense, as if revealing the plot would be tantamount to spoiling the play. But given the fact that Albee tells us what Martin's up to within 10 minutes of the lights going down, and the protagonist's capricornicious passions aren't even what the play's really about, such coyness seems completely misplaced.

For Albee fully intends us to approach The Goat as we might a production of Oedipus Rex -- fueled with a dread feeling of inevitability. It's not for nothing that Albee added a subtitle to the play, "Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy," when it was first published. As director of the ACT production Richard E.T. White puts it, the playwright "is attempting to reshape the themes of classical tragedy for a modern audience -- seeking out a situation that parallels powerful mythological stories like Leda and the swan or Pasiphaë and the bull, to attempt to put in a modern context that moment when humans are shaken by desires that redefine their very humanity."

In order to get at Albee's "definition of tragedy," you have to see past the goat. This is quite a challenge in a play riddled with exclamations like "Goatfucker!" and "You're fucking a goat!" and enough livestock references to cause a pileup on Noah's Ark. But like Beckett and Pinter before him, Albee has always used comedy as a vessel for tragedy, and the clues to The Goat's Aristotelian core are ingrained right there in the text. The illicit love interest (aka Sylvia the goat) from whom the play takes its title is linked to the etymology of tragedy: The word "tragedy" comes from tragos, which means "goat song." The spirit of vengeance and foreboding is subtly implanted right at the start of the play when Martin's filmmaker chum Ross draws attention to a "rushing sound, like a ... whooooosh!, or ... wings, or something" -- a sound that Martin playfully attributes to "the Eumenides" (a reference to the vengeful Furies in Aeschylus), but that Ross dismisses as the churning of the dishwasher in the next room. And as the play rolls on, we discover that Martin's hamartia -- his fatal flaw -- is not that he doesn't love his wife enough, but that he loves her too much and expects her to comprehend and even empathize with his feelings for the goat.

ACT does its best to balance the wild, Dionysian comic energy of Albee's play with its violently disturbing debt to classical tragedy, but Kent Dorsey's scenic design tries a little too hard to draw out the Ancient Grecian theme. Martin's well-appointed lounge, where the entire drama takes place, looks more like a room in a provincial art museum -- with its ungainly plinths, Doric columns, ceramic vases, headless busts, and imposing relief depicting Chiron, the Centaur (the half-man/half-horse figure of Greek myth) -- than the home of a respected contemporary architect.

But the passion and precision of the performances draw us in. As we watch the affably dadlike Don R. McManus as Martin and Pamela Reed as Stevie, his feisty wife, playfully trip each other up over Albee's trademark semantic somersaults in the opening scene, it feels a bit like slowly ascending the first steep hill on a fairground roller coaster: We know exactly what will happen once we reach the top, and the expectation fills us with a mutual sensation of elation and fear. Part of our willingness to see beyond the bombastic bestiality of the premise also hinges upon the main actor's ability to convince us of his love for Sylvia. When Martin remembers his first encounter with his beloved farmyard animal, all he can bring himself to say is, "Those eyes!" over and over again. McManus utters these words with a quiet, determined reverence, as if falling for Sylvia wasn't a matter of choice. There's no doubt of his being smote by that goat. And in the climactic, terrifying scene, Reed's Stevie practically transforms herself into one of the Eumenides, unleashing the final act of vengeance and thereby, hopefully, catharsis.

If, like me, you leave the theater feeling decidedly uncathartic, it's probably not ACT's fault. The sense of exhaustion and relief that one feels after experiencing a really great dramatic tragedy stems at least partly from watching a protagonist's unwarranted fall from greatness. Albee quite brilliantly captures the sublime state of Martin's personal life through the sparkle and affection of his relationships with Stevie and his son Billy, but fails to mine what fucking goats means for Martin from a professional point of view. Alluding to Martin's Pritzker Prize-winning glory through his appearance as the subject of an amateurish television documentary, People Who Matter, shot by Martin's old friend Ross (armed for the purpose with a hand-held camera in ACT's production), just doesn't do it. The clumsy exposition-packed scene feels like an awkward appendage, a third arm. If Martin were filmed by a professional crew for a serious documentary, it might help us accept his acumen. But the casual, gag-ridden repartee between the two friends makes a joke out of the idea of the architect being at the pinnacle of his career. As a result, Martin's fall from greatness doesn't feel so very great, leaving the tragic flaw of Albee's play tragically flawed.

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