The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

Program cover from 'The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?'

American Conservatory Theater – San Francisco through July 10

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Notes Toward a Definition of a Tragedy  by Edward Albee

It’s easier to describe my reaction and feelings about this intense and intricately-written 2000’s family drama than it is to talk about the play itself.  I know how wrapped up in the language, plots, relationships, and misery I was.  I can tell you I couldn’t get a full sentence out until we were well past the lobby doors and down a few blocks.  I can confess to having completely missed two MUNI stops on the way home as I was reliving the evening in my mind. 

I beg the theater to consider opening the bar after the performance for the rest of the run.  It’d be safer to let people operate heavy machinery with a couple shots in them than it is to turn them loose without decompression.

On a narrative level the play itself is dumbly outlandish.  Martin (Don R. McManus), a 50-year-old, truly happily married man has fallen in love with a goat while on a trip to a farm.  Martin confesses his affair to his best friend Ross (Charles Shaw Robinson) who tells the protagonist’s wife, Stevie (Pamela Reed). Their gay 18-year-old son, Billy (Joseph Parks), gets caught up in this parent’s relationship struggle. 

It’s an impossibly implausible set up without a wink and nudge to indicate that the goat is only symbolic.  One train of after-play thoughts considered the distinction between bestiality and zoophilia.  In any event, there is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe familiar college professor and wife in this Albee adventure. 

Both of the works focus on a family that has developed ways of working together.  The Goat‘s characters at the beginning of the play mesh together in a 2000 version of  idyllic happiness reminiscent of a ’50’s sitcom. Throughout the short 1 hour 50 minutes their love drives them to unresolvable heartbreak.   The Goat has been described as a dark comedy.  I guess I don’t understand genre definitions.  Yeah, there are many funny moments, mostly due to wickedly on target lines.  But, these characters will have worse emotional hangovers in the morning than Wolfe‘s George and Martha could even imagine.

The best aspect of this clean ACT production is its consistent ability to get out of the way of story as written.  The script is a magnificent horror skillfully released and unleashed on the audience.  Delivering the tale without false steps is a service.  Yet, “staying out of the way” isn’t meant as faint praise, because the production is spectacular.  It’s sincere praise, especially to the lead actors who are flawless in their ability to believably switch tone and emotion in concert with Albee’s mid-paragraph swings.  Both Don McManus as the husband/father and Pamela Reed are strong, believable, and energetic enough to carry the show by themselves.  Of course they don’t have to.

Joseph Parks’ son has just enough mannerisms to be funny, annoying, and tragic.  That is, to be 18. There is no falseness to his early antics and he’s genuine when being awkward in some late heavy scenes.

Generally I don’t notice the set design, costumes, lighting, and other technical details (except when they are obviously flawed or skewed by an over creative director).  These background crafts deserve applause in this ACT staging.  The set is especially strong, communicating the outward personality of the characters as soon as the lights come up.  My favorite touch was a vase of red flowers is a single spot of brilliant color which catches the eye when the struggling of the characters is too desperate to watch. Sure, the flowers are mentioned in the script, but the way the were fit into the room was class.

These comments are a based
on an early performance of the play which
starts previews today and runs through July 10.
It may be — should be — extended.

The original Broadway production won the Tony Award for best play in 2002.  See it here!

Ozdachs rating ***** out of *****

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