The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
(Notes toward a definition of tragedy)
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Paul Stout
Custom Made Theatre Co.
The child of a broken family myself, I remember being profoundly disturbed by Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his 1963 examination of self-delusion and the destruction of a marriage. Decades later, he’s still pointing his laser sharp focus on sexual norms and attractions with 2002’s Tony winner for best play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, and the results are no less difficult and uncomfortable. Couched within a ridiculous story of bestiality is a sad, harsh scrutiny of love, lust, fidelity and the boundaries of sexual norms, buoyed by outstanding performances by Matt Weimer as the lovelorn Martin and Hilary Hesse as his shocked and disillusioned wife Stevie.
The plot is simplistic; successful architect Martin is at the top of his game, at 50, the winner of the Pritzker Prize and a huge contract for a futuristic city. His life seems ideal of the surface, with loving, devoted wife Stevie and gay son Billy (Max Seijas) sharing their impeccable, compartmentalized home. Distracted during an interview with longtime friend Ross (Ryan Hayes), Martin confesses his affair with Sylvia, a goat, and all hell breaks loose.
The idea of bestiality is profoundly disturbing, but Albee makes Martin almost sympathetic in his genuineness. He attends a bestiality anonymous meeting but can’t understand why the people there are so sad. When you can unwrap your head from the goat thing, the drama turns to ideas of fidelity. Martin and Stevie both speak of their loyalty to their marriage, yet Martin chides his gay son about his sexual appetite. Moral conventions are being tested here.
Weimer’s Martin is reserved and proper, using wordplay and semantics to diffuse his internal chaos. There’s something bubbling right under the surface of his restrained performance but he never expresses rage or anger. Stevie, on the other side, runs through the gamut of emotions, from shock, disbelief, anger and fury. We’re along for the ride as Hesse works through Stevie’s raw emotions. She’s hurt and bears her open wound like any great Greek tragedy heroine does.
There’s a tender, sexually confusing incestuous kiss between Martin and Billy, and when added to the bestiality issue, might seem fantastically risqué. But in 2018, when we’re assaulted daily with much more hideous and grotesque issues, The Goat doesn’t seem quite so shocking. It is beautifully written with Albee’s spit-fire repartee and his delight in words. Albee gives us just enough to make of think without gift wrapping a resolution of any kind. Whereas George and Martha of Virginia Woolf do vicious battle and declare a truce, The Goat leaves us with a carcass, literally and figuratively.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? continues through October 20th, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https:// http://www.custommade.org/ or by calling 415.798.2682
Photo credits by Jay Yamada