Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? – Edward Albee

L - R Paul Witten and Ann Noble - Photos by Michael Lamont

By Joe Straw

Beneath Michael Shurtleff’s soft exterior was a hard-as-nails teacher.  Little shocked him as he sat through the litanies of actor’s scenes. In the early 1980’s one scene that just got to him was Edward Albee’s A Zoo Story with a little known, but magnificent actor, John Reno.  At the end of the play, Shurtleff cried like a baby, multiple tissues, blowing, and what not, for reasons not entirely explained. - Narrator  

Is he the hero or the goat?

Watching Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? audience members reacted differently. Having repeatedly heard the phrase: “He was not the hero but the goat” in the past, I came away with a different take altogether than my partner who is unfamiliar with the phrase. A figurative statement to be sure but surprisingly suited to all of the characters that lose a great deal by the end.  And I’ll get to that later.  

Theatre gives and you take what you will.

Could Albee have written a multivocal play that is this literal, or is it all symbolic of an innate gist? Certainly, Albee could not have come this far (2002) without providing us with some metaphorical amusement at this point in his illustrious career.  This play might be considered theatre of the absurd, mortified by the fact that one character has a brazen affection for a goat, a discreet and non-communicative farm animal. But in the end, the play is all too real.     

From the hero to the goat.

Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center Presents Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Directed by Ken Sawyer and Produced by Jon Imparato through November 23, 2014 at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre.

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? is a wonderful night of uneasy entertainment, as uncomfortable squirming and twisting are the high order of the night.  The subject matter, of moral incongruity, reinforces a sense of humanistic awareness, and that in itself is a grand testament to this wonderful night. The sublime execution, in a very small theatre space, comes along so rarely that one is astounded by the superior performances, the direction, and the overall production values from this ostentatious theatrical event.

Martin (Paul Witten) has just turned fifty and has the world is at his grassy feet. He has just won The Pritzker Architecture Prize, for “significant contributions to humanity…through the art of architecture”.  Oddly enough, this brass-like metal prize is strangely adorned with exotic leafy symbols one might think would be suitable as goat fodder.   

Martin shares his opulent living space with his wife Stevie (Ann Noble), who at the moment is busy preparing for a visitor, and their son Billy (Spencer Morrissey).  It is odd that Stevie and Billy are names that are common for pet goats.  Subconsciously, Martin may have planned this all along.  

Stevie call him into the living room and Martin stands passively on top of the grassy like pasture carpeting, unyielding to his present situation.  His eyes are deep and dark, an unreadable stare. And although he says he’s looking for a razor he likes the look of his goat-like pillared face, as he focuses to another time, another pasture.   

In reality, there’s not much there, in his stare. Preoccupied, Martin may be looking at the ranunculus flower Stevie prepared for the guest as a food source, and nothing else, unaware, or maybe aware, this particular flower is staple for goats and sheep.

In any case, Martin and Stevie, married for 22 years, have a terrific relationship, filled with urbane playfulness.  But Martin is deep in thought and can’t remember anything, including the two business cards that he absent-mindedly wrenches from his jacket.

More urbane playfulness and, after a forehead kiss, Stevie smells a peculiar odor on Martin’s jacket.

“Where have you been?” – Stevie

Martin feigns for a moment but then gets himself into more trouble by reading the two mysterious business cards.  And for the next few moments the game becomes one of cat and goat. (I couldn’t resist.)

“Clarissa Atherton, basic services.  Does she smell funny?” – Stevie

“ I don’t know.  I don’t know who she is, as far as I know.  Where were we this week?” – Martin

“Oh, it doesn’t matter sweetie.  If you’re seeing this Atherton woman, this.. dominatrix.. who smells funny…” – Stevie

Odd, that Stevie takes it to this extreme, that Martin might possibly be thinking in this realm.  She is so far out of this ballpark, but to go there suggests a suspicion that all is not right with their relationship.  

“If you are seeing that woman.  I think we’d better talk about it.” – Stevie

Martin, feeling so guilty, wants to let the goat out of the pen, so to speak, and he does so in the slyest of increments. (I really don’t want to give this away.)

Later Ross Tuttle (Matt Kirkwood), a family friend, arrives to interview Martin for his show People Who Matter.  Today’s topic is Martin turning fifty and winning the Pritzker prize.  He arrives without a crew.  Certainly Ross makes this an inauspicious occasion (no crew) for a matter of such importance in Martin’s life.  

“Tell us about The World City.” – Ross

“Well, you just did:  two hundred billion dollars, and all, the wheatfields of Kansas…” – Martin

Wheatfields!  Ahhh!  

But Martin is still preoccupied with serious matters at hand and Ross catches wind of Martin’s uneasiness, cuts the camera he is holding, and wants to know what’s going on.  

Knowing Martin since they were ten, Ross is sensing an affair, and moves in for the details, and in particular, the gory details.  Martin calls him a proletarian and a snob, a very insulting choice of words for someone who has been his best friend for forty years.  One would question their friendship, at this point, as being very suspect for reasons not entirely understood.  

But Martin has to tell the story at his own pace, bringing up events, from their past, including Ross’s relationship to “The Ladies Aid Society” and “April” who he had sex with even though he was married.

With that safety net exposed, Martin lets the goat out of the bag.

L to R — Spencer Morrissey, Paul Witten, Ann Noble, Matt Kirkwood

Paul Witten gives an exceptional performance as Martin. The audience howled when he demonstrated to Ross “…and she came toward me and…”  Martin searches and asks for forgiveness from all he has hurt, mostly his son and wife. What could possibly be the reason for Martin, who by all appearances is on top of the world, to get involved with a goat, when he risks losing everything? Witten gives a subtle and understated approach to the character, which works very well. But I’m wondering if there is another edge to this character, a reason why he reminds his friend about the party and then destroys him before confessing to his love affair.  He also appears to be a man who is not apologetic for what he has done.  Despite his degree of expostulating with his wife, and being humble, he is not getting out of this predicament. Altogether, Witten's performance is wonderful.

Ann Noble, as Stevie, does a remarkable job.  There is something wrong with Stevie’s relationship with her husband, which is slightly hinted, a hidden secret, not divulged in this play that could have added a nice touch to their relationship. Stevie has a strong persona, with flaming red hair, and will stop at nothing to get the truth and if it means tearing up the living room, so be it. And more than anything she is angry that she has to play second fiddle to a goat.   Oh, the humiliation! This marriage is by all accounts over and the information she gets during the course of understanding the why would just be fodder for divorce court. Her execrated announcement “I’ll bring you down with me!” suggests not a happy ending.

Spencer Morrissey plays their son Billy and he is on his mother’s side throughout.  He is slight but stands strong when he thinks his father is beating up on his mother.  About the only thing, this slight seventeen-year-old kid can do, is save a vase he likes, as his mother tears up in the living room.  Morrissey does a fine job with his relationships, the need to protect his mother, and figuring out what went wrong with his father, but needs work strengthening his voice as a matter of practical concern.

Matt Kirkwood does a fine job as Ross. Overall it was an exceptional job but some moments were lost on this night – mostly timing issues –, which should be corrected by the time you see it. Also, the relationships between his best friend and his best friend’s wife would do well to be better defined. Treating them both like casual friends does not serve this character’s purpose. There are infinite possibilities for this jealous, conniving, wife cheating, snitching, proletariat.  Ross is part of this iniquitous show. Kirkwood may have made grand inroads into this character but there’s more to be had from this Machiavellian persona who rides in with his malignancy disguised as a friend.  

Ken Sawyer, the director, does a fantastic job with this show, with the actors, the look, and the overall production values.  It is a night where one waits for that moment when the event, told with extreme caution, tragically destroy the lives of this family. The question for me is: Why? Why would the character risk everything to destroy his life? I’m not sure we got the definitive answer from this production, but it is fun to speculate on the whys. The Goat is a tragedy in the end because, by all means, everyone in this relationship winds up being “the goat”. They all lose, various things, for various reasons. Martin has lost his wife, the son has lost his family, and Ross has lost his relationship with his friends.  One might ask what Ross gains from writing the letter, an act that places him in an invidious position, when it appears that he loses everything. And it is not only Ross, each of the characters, with their moral imperfections; go to an extreme measure to destroy their relationships.

Jon Imparato, the Producer, did a marvelous job down to the smallest detail.  This is a wonderful production.

The exquisite set by Robert Selander plays every inch of this fine production including the painting destroyed which appears to have a goat in it in the lower left hand corner.

Other members of this outstanding crew are as follows:

Assistant Director – Shaunessy Quinn
Lighting Designer – Matt Richter
Costume Designer – Paula Higins
Sound Designer – Ken Sawyer
Press Representative – Ken Werther Publicity
Stage Manager – Kathleen Jaffe
Fight Director – Edgar Landa
Property Master – Bethany Tucker
Set Construction – Allison Hill, Peter Sauber

Run!  Run!  Run!   And take a friend that likes big surprises.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Buried Child by Sam Shepard

Leon Russom as Dodge - Photos by: Nico Sabenorio

By Joe Straw

Some people can live with the tragedies of their own making and hide them until they die, others can’t. - Narrator

An ideal farmer’s day starts long before the sun rises.  Feeding the livestock is generally the first task.  And then the farmer moves on to manage the little things that are in disrepair. Tinkering until the dearly moments of the evening, the farmer sidles to bed, lying down his tired soul, saying a thankful prayer for all that he has been given, and then falls asleep.   

Working a successful farm is the American dream personified.  As the family grows, the work intensifies. 

Farm life is hard and rewarding work until something goes horribly wrong.  And something went wrong here.  A tragic event has forced the family to live a conscience nightmare, suffering infinitely. And these exhausted souls are now a confoundedly grotesque image of a farm family.  Each in his or her despairing reflections, recognizing the event that no one wants to talk about. 

The event in question becomes a memory, an object relegated to the darkest part of the home and the deepest part of the subconscious.   And the oldest, living with the dreadful curiosity, wonders each day how all this is going to end before eternal perdition.   

And you thought you were coming to see a comedy.

Whitefire Theatre presents A Scott Disharoon Production of the Pulitzer Prize Winning play Sam Shepard’s Buried Child directed by Bryan Rasmussen.

Dodge (Leon Russom), in his seventies, sleeps on a warn leather sofa, a blanket covering a chill so deep, and a hidden bottle of whiskey under the cushion.  The Folgers’s coffee can for cigarette butts, and the folded poke, becomes a surrounding staple, along with a trashcan, and the rejectamenta, the used tissues that never finds its rightful place but on the floor.

Dodge is stifled by both a nasty cough and “a pact” made years ago.  His mournful self sits, watching television, and hacking away.  Next to him are a number of prescription drugs to ease the cough.  He waits for the time, hoping the grim reaper will not get him before his work is finished.

Halie (Jacque Lynn Colton), Dodge’s slightly ditsy but hearty wife, is concerned with his coughing as she listens from another room but not so concerned as to come down and help him.  Her curiosity is satisfied with any reply or a grunt emanating from the soft spot of the sofa.   

“Every time you get like this, it’s the rain.  No sooner does rain start than you start.” – Halie

The rain has this family on the edge. 

Halie orders Dodge to take a pill.  Forget the love and healing old wounds.  Her commands are about the only cure Dodge is going to get now. Slightly lit, she applies makeup as she prepares herself for a date.  She’s got more living to do as she remembers herself as a giggling teenager.  

“I went once.  With a man.  On New Year’s.” – Halie

“Oh, a ‘man’.” – Dodge

Halie mentions that he was a breeder … of horses.  

“I bet he taught you a thing or two, huh?  Gave you a good turn around the old stable!” – Dodge

Halie says that if Dodge isn’t going out today, Tilden (David Fraioli), their simple-minded son, will be looking out for him. And Bradley (Cris D’Annunzio), the indolent younger son, will be coming over today to give Dodge a haircut. But one has to keep an eye on one-legged Bradley, a dangerous man with cutting instruments (see amputated leg). 

“I won’t be very late.  No later than four at the very latest.” – Halie

In the meantime, Dodge calls for Tilden but he is out in the rain and nowhere to be found. This sends Halie mysteriously into a tizzy.

Tilden, rain soaked, suddenly appears with an armload of corn, in the center of the living room, just, standing and looking around.   

“There hasn’t been corn out there since about nineteen thirty-five!  That’s the last time I planted corn out there!” – Dodge

“It’s out there now.” – Tilden

So now we are getting the idea that not much is right with this family. In fact things are starting to look a little creepy.  And there is an air about them, an appearance, of a hurt that involves a ghastly intimacy.   

It’s no wonder.  There’s a child buried, somewhere, out there, on the farm.

Dodge tells Tilden to go put the corn back.  And with a kind of animosity, Tilden pitches the corn onto Dodge’s lap. This doesn’t sit too well with Dodge and he figures Tilden is in trouble again.

“I know you had a little trouble back there in New Mexico.  That’s why you came out here.  Isn’t that the reason you came back?” – Dodge

“I never had any trouble.” – Tilden

The only thing left to do, Tilden starts shucking the corn, throwing the shucks onto the middle of the floor, and the silk less stalks of corn into a bucket.  

From upstairs, Halie wants to know if Tilden is down there. Dodge tells him not to say anything. And so Tilden shucks as Halie emasculates her sons in detail:  Tilden – handsome but a jailbird, Bradley – smart enough to cut off his leg with a chainsaw, and Ansel – who got himself killed on his wedding night, against her better wishes.  

“It’s not fitting for a man like that to die in a motel room.  A soldier.  He could’ve won a medal.” – Halie

Halie gossips about all the trouble Tilden has gotten himself into, finding himself in New Mexico, and getting thrown out of that state.  She walks downstairs her rambling continues past the picture frames of a forgotten past, she sees the cornhusks and accuses Tilden of stealing the corn.

“I didn’t steal it.  I don’t want to get kicked out of Illinois.  I was kicked out of New Mexico and I don’t want to get kicked out of Illinois.” –Tilden

Oh jeez.  All this fuss!  No matter, Halie’s got a luncheon date.  She reminds Dodge that Bradley’s going to give him a haircut. Dodge, clutching his hat on his head, says Bradley was born in the hog wallow.

“You sit here day and night, festering away!  Decomposing!  Smelling up the house with your putrid body…Thinking up mean, evil, stupid things to say about your own flesh and blood!” – Halie

“He’s not my flesh and blood!  My flesh and blood’s out there in the backyard!” – Dodge.


This hits Halie like a ton of bricks and is something no one in the family wants to talk about.  Still, Halie prepares to leave.  Says she going to a meeting with Father Dewis (Grant Smith) to get a statue of Ansel or at least plaque placed somewhere in town.

“Why’d you tell her it was your flesh and blood?” – Tilden

Letting some truth come out slowly.  

Dodge is a little confused about Tilden’s return home, says it’s unnatural, but is feeling like it’s the end of his life and doesn’t want Tilden to leave.  In fact, demands that he does not leave the room. But, as soon as Dodge falls asleep, Tilden takes the bottle of whiskey from under the cushion and leaves the house to find … something. 

And a short time later, the Scaramouch – Bradley – enters, negotiates his fake leg, pulls out his shears, and starts cutting on Dodge’s calvous cranium.

Later, Vince (Zachary Mooren), Tilden’s son, and his 19 year-old girlfriend, Shelly (Tonya Cornelisse), slip quietly into the house. To Shelly, the house is like a Norman Rockwell painting and she has uncontrollable giggles when Vince calls out “Grandma”. 

Shelly is expecting apple pie with a nice respectable family until she discovers the waxen and silent Dodge on the couch. She explains why they are there but Dodge says nothing.

“Vince, will you come down here please?!” – Shelly

When Vince gets there Dodge doesn’t appear to recognize him. In fact, no one recognizes Vince.

There is a child buried on the farm.

Christopher Tulysewski’s stunning set, as we walked to our seats, is a visual feast.  One can marvel at the use of space in this wonderful place that is the Whitefire Theatre. It is a multi-level patchwork of a run down farmhouse in the countryside. Up stage left is a curious object, a shovel.

Sam Shepard rewrote the 1977 play Buried Child in 2005 and that is the version being presented.  The written play is filled with an abundant symbolism, mixed up time frames, and people who do not exist. Vince’s mother is one example of someone completely missing from the written play.  And that gives us reason to believe that Vince is just a figment of everyone’s imagination, if only briefly.  

“All the boys were grown….Then Halie got pregnant.” – Dodge

That would make Tilden approximately 25 when he had sex with his mother.  This is probably why he hightailed it to New Mexico, spent time there before coming back although it’s not completely clear why he was there, what trouble he got into, and why he came back.

(There were some very nice moments in the earlier version of this play that I liked a lot. I will let that go for another time.)

Although this is a strong cast, there were a lot of opening night jitters, moments not jelling, overlapping and missed dialogue and other miscues, including one actor creating new dialogue.   One doesn’t like to see this on opening night but actors get in and out of trouble all the time, it happens.

Also, there is more creativity to be had here from all of the characters. Sam Shepard's play is wrought with so much symbolism, the task for the actor becomes slightly complicated, that is to convey a truth while completing a physical objective on stage. And I realize this is Sam Shepard but all actors must have strong objectives, even if misguided.  I want to see each actor taking the character to extremes, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn't.  Still, there is a lot to like about this production and by the time you read this, the actors will have settled into their roles and grown more confident with more production nights under their belt.

There are spoilers in here so don’t read any further if you want to see this play.

Front:  Leon Russom, David Fraioli, Cris D'Annunzio
Back:  Jacque Lynn Colton, Zachary Mooren, Tonya Cornelisse

Leon Russom was impressive as Dodge.  Although he is slowly dying, there’s not much life in this humorless character that has humor throughout. Also, Dodge has gone through a tremendous amount of pain and he has committed a terrible crime. If it’s the one last thing he does there must be an enormous emotional release when he confesses.  And no matter how close to death he is, the bigger the emotional release the better, whether big or small, externally or internally, something has to happen.  

Jacque Lynn Colton had her moments as Halie.  My preference is that she not be seen at all in the first act when she is up in her room. And what I really don’t want to see is her making up herself, her hair, and shuffling through papers (script notes?) ad nauseam on stage in the beginning of the first act. There’s not a lot of room to do things up there and a black curtain would highlight our imagination. Her actions don’t progress the scene.  Also Colton has a very lovely voice and that part of the performance rang true. The relationship with her sons needs work. Also, there is something mentally wrong with Halie.  She crossed a line most would consider taboo and we should see that in her character.

David Fraioli plays Tilden a man who is slightly touched.  It is probably the character with which Shepard had the most problems. A former athlete, an All American halfback, probably high school All American (there’s no mention of college for any of the boys).  He is now timid, passive, and back on the farm. Why?  Only Tilden knows. Crazy character traits are fine, but without an objective, the character goes nowhere and we lack compassion for his route on stage. By my accounts Tilden had sex with his mother at the age of 25, his mother got pregnant, farm life died and everything stopped. Tilden, left, got another woman pregnant (didn’t get married) had a son Vince, (who’s been living in New York for 6 years), got in trouble in New Mexico and came back a shattered man of his former self.   So why is he picking corn and carrots in the rain?  Because in the pliable rain soaked ground, he is looking for his baby.  (Seems simple to me). So the crazy stuff with the corn, the diving on it, throwing it on Dodge, must be in line with his objective and I didn’t see any of that. Also, Tilden’s relationship with his mother must be a relationship that is unworldly and I saw no relationship with her on stage at all. That’s not to discount all the work going on, on stage.  Fraioli has a good look and had his moments.

Cris D’Annunzio, as Bradley, has a very good look on stage and strangely enough he would be better suited to play Tilden.  Still he does a fine job.  A little more whimpering would be nice especially after his leg has been taken. He is now the baby in the family and must really play that role in order for the comedy to work.  

Tonya Cornelisse did a fine job as 19-year-old Shelly.  She is very thin with a strong sultry voice and the yoga scene in the third act was fantastic.   But, the second act, someone needs to teach Shelly how to peel carrots that looks something closer to reality.  Take the leaves off, peel the carrots on a newspaper (with a carrot peeler – every farm house has one), and work the carrots like you really mean it!  Shelly has no qualms taking command of the carrots, taking command of the space would also be a good thing.  Also, act two would be better played if the choices were one of curiosity rather than disgust.  Shelly is there to uncover a family secret, to bring it out, to gather the information, and to share it, no matter the cost.

Zachary Mooren plays Vince. The violence did not ring true.  Mooren’s objective is indefinable on stage and this creates problems with his actions.  The bottle-throwing scene serves no purpose.  The beating of his uncle takes him nowhere.  If his objective is to get the farm then he should go after it.

Grant Smith has his moments as Father Dewis.  He comes in as a savior, slightly lecherous, but by the time it’s all over, he is so far out of his element that one thinks he might question his faith in the end.  In the end, he is no savior but he must try mightily.  

Lukas Behnken plays Vince but did not perform the night I was there.  

Not a lot went wrong on this night under Bryan Rasmussen’s direction and a lot of things went right.  You can read Shepard’s play and find something new each time you read it.  But what I really wanted to see was a definitive stamp on this production, Rasmussen’s point of view. This is what makes theatre so exciting, seeing another director’s work.  Missing are the discomforting intimate moments from Tilden and his mother Halie, their backstory, and how they are able to be in the same room together. We never really get a sense for Dodge’s reason of being. And even though he did not get up from the couch or the floor, his intention is no less great, and he must really go for it.

Scott Disharoon did a fine job producing this show.

Carole Ursetti was the Production Stage Manager.

Ricki Maslar, CSA was the Casting Director.

The Publicist was Nora Feldman.

The Lighting Design was by Derrick McDaniel.

DJ Lesh provided the Sound Design. The thunder with each character’s entrance was overpowering, some rolling thunder in the distance would have been nice.

Laura Tiefer was the Costume Designer.

Great photos were taken by Nico Sabenorio. 

Run! Run!  And take a very old farmer with you.

Reservations:  818-990-2324