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The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Edward Albee's provocation gets a stellar subversive production - Drew Rowsome - MGT Stage

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?
Edward Albee's provocation gets a stellar subversive production

11 November 2017.


by Drew Rowsome -
Photos by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Don't be put off that the shocking/comical reveal of The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? is given away by the title. Playwright Edward Albee is just amusing himself by building a theatrical layer of suspense into the first act: the audience knows what is coming and gets suspenseful delight in Albee's teasing it out. And once the secret is out, the fireworks can begin.

Cuddly bear Martin (Albert Schultz) has reached the age of 50 and his great success as a prize-winning architect is being undermined by a nagging problem with his memory. Or maybe he's just distracted. His chic wife (Raquel Duffy) is concerned but, when their life is so ideal - as evidenced by the white-on-white gleamingly tasteful set that is their model home - she laughs it off. Their perfect nuclear family is rounded out by a teenage gay son - though Martin isn't as happy about the gay aspect as he pretends - Billy, played by the always engaging Paolo Santalucia (MustardThe Taming of the Shrew), who is the son every parent dreams of, until he isn't.

When family friend Ross (Derek Boyes) learns and then exposes Martin's secret, the flawless family explodes. The detonations are, given the talented cast involved, wildly entertaining and brutally horrific. Duffy gets the diva speeches and actions, and she grabs onto them fiercely while maintaining a core of pain erupting through her brittle bright exterior. She is astounding, in particular with a series of guttural roars of agony that are genuinely painful to watch. Schultz has more of a slow burn, but he compellingly makes us believe that his love for Sylvia is genuine and somehow pure. Which makes his final outbursts powerful and frightening before an ending that takes the concept of dark comedy far beyond its logical extreme into something hilarious and tragic and deeply unsettling.

Albee is exploring several themes at once and one that current events have thrust upon the play. The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? questions societal taboos and just what is acceptable. Using gay as a foil, Albee and this production, ably contrast the audience's desire to be liberal and hip with the lurking judgmental feelings we all have. If it weren't so entertaining and amusing, it would be unbearably uncomfortable. A support group for bestiality enthusiasts/addicts, is contrasted with gay conversion therapy. Duffy lists what she would have found "fixable," but Sylvia is beyond the pale. What will people think?

It is here that Albee is at his most clever. The family has a habit of correcting each other's grammar or choice of words. Duffy apologizes that "Women in deep woe often mix their metaphors;" Schultz and Ross debate "who" versus "whom." It is funny, witty wordplay but it has a deeper subtext of how desperately they are all hanging on to a social veneer that presents perfections, proper order. When the cracks in that veneer have become fissures, Santalucia hurls the word "Semanticist!" at his father, using the word as an epithet. It is a sharp, telling moment, especially when contrasted with his father's previous blurting of "Fucking faggot!" Albee is spelling out that we don't have the vocabulary to deal with intense pain, unconventional desires, or even basic love. And he also demonstrates that all the gloss and perfection a middle to upper class life provides, can't mask the animal within.

With the Weinstein, Spacey, and whoever has been implicated since I started typing, scandals fresh in The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?'s audience's minds, there are some extra implications that Albee may not have foreseen. A joking passage about fidelity and Schultz saying he only has "been groped and had my hands a few places they shouldn't have been," has a different resonance than when the play was first performed in 2002. That Schultz is obviously aware of this and puts a nasty, innocent spin on the line, is a credit to his skill and nerve as an actor. And the previously wide-eyed and blissfully, innocently milking his naive twink status, aptly-named Billy, crosses a line that makes the theatre gasp. 

The other concern is with consent. The major problem our society has with bestiality, besides the ick factor of any taboo, is that it is also animal abuse. An animal can't consent. Martin insists that he loves Sylvia and that she loves him, and there is a horrible feeling in the pit of one's stomach that it resembles the justification of "they were asking for it" or "they wanted it." Albee touches on the concept but mostly skips over it in the interests of keeping the plot and comedy spinning until it climaxes in sacrificial horror.

That sounds like a lot of intellectual blather to place on a wildly entertaining and socially disruptive play. But that is what makes it art. And what makes this slick production so subversive. Playing as a rarefied sitcom, there is even slapstick, director Alan Dilworth and the cast go where most comedy, or even drama, doesn't dare to go. And the audience goes along willingly, it is all amusingly entertaining until the barbs hit home and our own perfect worlds are indicted. When Ross asks in disgust, "Is there anything you people don't get off on?" there is no answer: we're too busy cataloguing and reluctantly exploring ideas that have just been seriously upended. 

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? continues until Sat, Nov 18 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery Historic District. soulpepper.ca

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