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.



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