The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (September 30-October 17, 2010)

The Goat’: Disquieting sum of the parts
Theater Artists Olympia is doing Edward Albee’s “The Goat or Who is Sylvia” at The Midnight Sun Performance Space in downtown Olympia.

“Entertaining” is not the right word for this play. “For adults only” hardly conveys how shocking or offensive it might be to large segments of the theater-going public. I don’t want to say I liked it, but I did like each separate aspect of it, from the writing to the acting to production values that were outstanding considering the limitations of space and budget.
Albee is known for provocative and nonconventional plays. From his first play in 1958, “The Zoo Story,” to the film that made him famous with a wider audience, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Albee has been known for ironic humor, biting dialogue and unrelenting dramatic tension. “The Goat” has all of this in spades.

Martin (Christopher Cantrell) is a successful architect who has been faithful to his wife, Stevie (Pug Bujeaud) for decades. Their settled life is shattered when he confesses to an affair with Sylvia, a goat.

Bestiality is not unheard of, but it is rare, and what makes it even stranger in Martin’s case is that he says he is in love with Sylvia.

The play begins as a conventional domestic comedy, but Stevie gives an early hint that it is going to veer into the absurd when she says, “The sense that everything’s going right is a sure sense that everything’s going wrong.” Even before Martin confesses his affair – first to his best friend, Ross (Christian Carvajal) and then to Stevie and their son, Billy (Samuel Johnston) – it becomes a laugh-fest of absurd humor. But soon the laughter becomes uncomfortable, and the intensity of the clashes between the four characters becomes almost unbearable as the reality of what has been confessed sinks in. There is an absurd amount of screaming and cursing and smashing of glass and ceramics as Stevie throws almost every artifact in their home to the floor. (Warning: Sitting in the front row might be dangerous.)

Albee’s wordplay is in a league with Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard. The direction by Eric Mark is outstanding, and I can’t praise the acting by Cantrell, Bujeaud, Carvajal and Johnston enough.

If it is possible to envision how normal people might react to the announcement that their husband-dad-best friend is in love with a goat, the reactions of these three are absolutely believable and realistic.

Carvajal makes you dislike but empathize with Ross. Bujeaud and Johnston both express extreme emotions tempered with nuanced expressions. To sustain such intensity of emotion throughout a play without striking a false note or dropping a line or slipping out of character is amazing. Cantrell, who is known for broad and highly emotional acting, actually reins it in a bit in a display of tightly controlled despair and confusion. This is acting at its best.

If you think you can take it, I do recommend that you see “The Goat or Who is Sylvia.”

Seating is limited. The audience was small the night I saw it. The next night, they had a full house, so I recommend purchasing tickets online as soon as possible.

Sympathetic bestiality

Theater Artists Olympia’s “The Goat” delivers the unthinkable

By Joe Izenman

Well, she’s a goat. There are no spoilers there. Edward Albee’s play is titled The Goat or Who is Sylvia? So I’ll just lay that out. Sylvia is the goat. And Christopher Cantrell plays Martin, and Martin is the man, and the man is having sex with the goat.

And Stevie is his wife, and Ross is his friend, and Billy is his son, and they all find out he is having sex with a goat.

But that’s the trick of it. Director Eric Mark says in his program notes, “I’m hopeful that you will ultimately agree that this show is not just about a man and a goat.” And he’s right. It’s not about the man and the goat. It’s about the man and his friend and his wife and their son. It is about the impact, rather than the action. The aftermath, rather than the deed.

It is easy to mistake The Goat for a comedy. Indeed, the opening scene is almost farcical. Throwaway comments from all the characters play into the secret that the audience shares with Martin, and the dramatic irony builds to a fever pitch.

Christian Carvajal’s* Ross leaps deftly from awkward misunderstanding to boorish masculinity and back again as he circles in on the truth of his friend’s new mistress, and the payoff of discovery that the audience has been waiting for does not disappoint.

From the first moment of the second scene, however, it is clear we are watching no comedy. The behavior we found so hilariously inappropriate takes a turn for the darkly personal. Martin’s perpetually amusing confusion at the world peels back to reveal a quiet despair.

Cantrell’s Martin is not angry, or evil, or even afraid, per se. Instead, he is desperate. Not frantic, but desperate to be understood, and resigned to the unlikelihood of his wish. In this, the actor achieves something that should be extraordinarily difficult: sympathetic bestiality.

The anger, fear and other ironically primal emotions are reserved for Stevie. Played by Pug Bujeaud, Theater Artists Olympia’s artistic director, she morphs from Martin’s cleverly understanding partner to a fiery ball of rage and grief. Her confusion is more pointed than his, her desperation sharper.

By the time the lights go down for the last time, any laughter is relegated to the relief of uneasy, awkward tension. In this, the production transcends comedy and drama and hits on something beyond apparent genres: real life.

Life is not a comedy, but it still spends an awful lot of time being hilarious. And life, as a general rule, is not a tragedy, but it still makes us cringe and weep, by turns.

The Goat is uncomfortable. Partly because of its subject, but largely because it manages to raise questions beyond “What is wrong with this guy?” Is it worse to have done something that others find reprehensible, or to care more about the opinions of others than your own beliefs? And more importantly: what makes it wrong? Not because the players wish to convince us that it is, but because it is important to have a better answer than “it just is”.

It is a boon to the community that we have at least a few theater groups more interested in difficult questions than easy answers. And so it is appropriate that with the final curtain they ask one more: Who do you feel the most kinship with? Who is ultimately the victim?

Well, besides the goat.

*Full disclosure: Yes, the Christian Carvajal mentioned is the same guy that, along with Joe Izenman and Joann Varnell, regularly reviews theater for the Weekly Volcano. Sorry. He’s in a play about a guy fucking a goat. We couldn’t resist. Surely you understand.

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