Sunday, March 20, 2005

ARTS: The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?

Edward Albee's "The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?", winding up this weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, is a galvanic drama that mentally sears. Albee, long famous for his explorations of the underbelly of marital relations, pushes transgression of the boundaries of marriage and society to its shocking limits. This play is difficult to pull off, as the director has to walk a tightrope balancing comic relief against intense drama, where tipping one way would let the audience off too easily from the powerful and intentionally disturbing issues raised, and tipping the other way would be unbearable. As the character Stevie recognizes, "some things are just so awful that you have to laugh". But then she's forced to confront why she's laughing, which stops the laughter cold. Director Warner Shook occasionally wobbles, but ultimately pulls off the balance, a feat that requires strong faith in the script, his actors, and his audience. While the audience had a good laugh at times, by the second scene, in the breaths between the explosive drama on stage, the transfixed audience was stone silent. And in some moments of shock punctuated by a few nervous laughs, the discomfort was palpable. The actors deserve tremendous credit, particularly Brian Kerwin, who succeeds in making us believe the unbelievable, and Cynthia Mace, who makes us imagine the unimaginable. (I'm reminded why I loved Cynthia Mace as Harper in the original production of Angels in America. Kudos too to Patrick J. Adams in his professional debut playing the highly emotional adolescent character Billy.) This was the second time I've seen this play, the first being an even more intense production at the small Actors Express Theatre in Atlanta. While both productions took the risk of plumbing the weight of the play (in contrast to other productions I've heard about where they went for more comedy), the notable difference was in the interpretation of Ross, who in this production was played by James Eckridge with "George Costanza" overtones, leavening the initial shocking revelation with comedy, but at the cost of not being as credible as a true friend, and making Ross not as full and even a character as he can be. (On the upside, the mid-century modern set of this production added a subtle compliment to the play, particularly the inspired use of the kidney-bean-shaped couch.) Overall the production succeeded, and brought the audience to its feet at the end. As I noted, this play is particularly difficult, requiring an alchemy of directorial balance, credible acting in incredible roles, and an audience open to being challenged. With any ingredient missing, the alchemy fails, leaving only lead. When it works, you get theatre at its provocative best. Last night, we saw the gold.

1 comment:

Chris Newton said...

Bravo, Tom. You've rendered an insightful review with which I completely agree. I can only imagine the challenges this play presents to actors and directors alike. Watching the drama unfold, I became conscious of the "partnership" Albee most certainly envisioned between cast and audience when he wrote it. In "The Goat" he's asked both to walk a tightrope together and this production has navigated it well. Once again, we were treated to provocative, compelling theatre at the Mark Taper Forum!