Review By Lisa Lanzi
Edward Albee has written of his play: “You may, of course, have received the misleading information that the play is about bestiality - more con than pro. Well, bestiality is discussed during the play (as is flower arranging) but it is a generative matter rather than the ‘subject’.” Albee was 74 when The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? opened on Broadway in 2002 and it won a Tony Award for Best Play that same year.
Albee graced the play with a subtitle: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy. There are tragic circumstances and outcomes within the narrative but the added juxtapositions of humour and irony introduce layers of inference and effect that lead an audience through a complex set of emotions. On the surface, and in the first act, we watch a successful and happy, upper middle-class, affluent American couple bantering with great affection. Martin and Stevie ‘fit’ together beautifully and Nathan Page and Claudia Karvan bounce off each other with perfect timing and a delightful ease of movement and play across the astonishing, architectural set designed by Jeremy Allen. As the two move from domestic comfort and security to utter disbelief, destruction, and heartbreak, the two actors portray their characters’ trajectories with nuanced, fitting choices well supported by Mitchell Butel’s detailed, sincere direction.
Alongside the tragedy and wry humour, Albee invites us to examine our own tolerances. It is interesting that the oft-used F word eventually loses impact as a vulgarity and simply becomes a manifestation of emotion: surprise, frustration, grief, horror, anger, as well as the usual tawdry descriptor of the sex act. There is also scrutiny about the way we as humans react to social taboos: we witnesses Ross (Mark Saturno) salaciously and impatiently awaiting Martin’s revelation about an affair then the substantial shift in his reaction when the love interest is found not to be a woman. Ultimately though, the play examines love and loss and how Albee’s characters approach and deal with those states, and with change therein. It is also a window on how we might define a life, our choices, and the outcomes that eventuate, albeit with an absurdist gaze.
Albee’s language is rhythmic, inventive and virtuosic referencing at times grand literature styles or even vaudevillian routines as word play is batted between characters. The actors here have managed beautifully to endow the text with sense, as well as just the right idiosyncratic flavour to frame their characters. The hilarity Page and Karvan bring to Martin and Stevie’s badinage as they question or correct each other’s semantics, linguistic choices, and mixed metaphors is a theme that remains even when the stakes are heightened. They each love and value the other’s cleverness and intellect but those traits also tragically elevate the bitterness and disappointment as Martin repeats his plea “you have to understand”, when there is no possibility of understanding. Saturno also portrays Ross with gleeful but subtle baseness and expertly harnesses the vocal and physical traits that are both amusing and slightly repulsive. A newcomer to live theatre, Yazeed Daher ably embraces the role of Martin and Stevie’s son Billy (a deliberate ‘goat-y’ reference I am sure), who at seventeen is eloquent and feisty, adores his parents, and speaks his mind.
It is obvious that Butel has assembled a cohesive creative team to augment the production. Ailsa Paterson is responsible for the astute costuming and Nigel Levings for the gorgeous lighting. As mentioned previously, the very grand set was designed by Jeremy Allen, and might have upstaged the action if it were not for the prodigiously talented cast. Another side to the expansive set was the opportunity for the actors to really move through and around the space, including suggested offstage spaces and levels, and Butel has used all this to great advantage. Composer & Sound Designer Andrew Howard has contributed a truly beautiful, subtle atmospheric score which echoes the building tension on stage without ever overpowering. Applause must also go to Elias Ppiros for some very impressive specialist prop-making, which I assume alludes to a certain large ‘package’ that appears very close to the finale.
It is rather special to watch this marvellous quartet of actors immersed in the absurd world of Edward Albee, and who are truly riveting in both individual roles and as an ensemble. Stevie entreats Martin "How can you love me when you love so much less?" as she tries to make sense of heinous betrayal, as deeply affecting as any classical Greek Tragedy. There is no suitable answer, no logic, and no balance remaining in these lives.
Image Credit: Matt Byrne