Destruction of Innocence

This production of a play about a marriage ruined by a goat is loud, intense and uncomfortably realistic

During last week's preview performance of Edward Albee's The Goat, the cops showed up to investigate a report of domestic violence. Well, what do you expect with a play by the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

As the 911 call suggests, Rogue Theatre's production of The Goat is loud, intense and, in emotional terms, uncomfortably realistic--even though the action hinges on the discovery that a respected family man has fallen in love and been having an affair with a goat named Sylvia.

Albee's play is full of metaphor and allusion, some fleeting and some almost weighty enough to stop the play in its cloven tracks. Let's start with the title, the full version of which is The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Well, Sylvia is not only a goat; she's a character in Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona who is said to give succor to the sightless god Eros: "Love doth to her eyes repair / To help him of his blindness / And, being helped, inhabits there."

Importantly, Martin, Albee's goat-smitten character, is initially captivated by Sylvia's eyes, and what he feels is not animal lust so much as love, and not conventional love so much as something primal and even quasi-religious, something he can't quite articulate, and something his wife, Stevie, is certainly not prepared to understand. "It's about being a soul," Martin says, to which his skeptical wife counters, "You can't fuck a soul."

Albee doesn't make this explicit, but there's an ancient connection between sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy; think about what went on with those priestesses in Greek temples. Indeed, ancient Greek myth and tragedy clearly inspired much of Albee's work here; Oedipus is never far from mind in this play, which ultimately piles one sexual taboo upon another, and Medea hovers bloodily over the alarming finale.

All this after an opening scene that pays homage to the sophisticated banter of Noel Coward.

Yes, The Goat begins as a light comedy, and it would be possible, though not very effective, to play up the humor all the way through. Yet the Rogue production makes the more dangerous but necessary choice, following Albee steadily into darkness and desperation.

In the beginning, Martin and Stevie seem to have a model marriage. After 22 years, they're still in love, manage life and household adroitly, support their bright 17-year-old son who seems to be turning out gay, and have all the best liberal opinions. It's not clear what Stevie does with her time, but Martin is a fabulously successful architect who has just turned 50 and is the very picture of convention: He's had the same best friend for 40 years; he lives in a nicely appointed city house and is looking for a second country home; and he's always been faithful to Stevie.

Or had been, until he started having sex with a goat.

Albee begins the play with an almost giggly-intellectual touch; Martin, Stevie and friend Ross mock each other's odd poetic or archaic turns of phrase, make obscure allusions and banter in out-of-synch dialogue that owes much to Harold Pinter. Everything changes when Ross betrays a confidence that Martin has reluctantly shared--that business with the goat.

This is so far outside the rules of normal behavior that Stevie can barely come to grips with it. She's wounded, yes, but, especially as played by the valiant Cynthia Meier, she's not one to collapse into a whimpering heap; she holds her own and, in pain and rage, lashes out both emotionally and physically. By the end of the evening, their living room is as big of a mess as their marriage.

The Goat is not about bestiality; it's about the nature of love and loneliness, and many other things as well. Early in the play, there's an almost offhand reference to a prostitute named "Large Alice"; this is a coy allusion to Albee's opaque and much-reviled 1964 play, Tiny Alice, a metaphor-laden work about vulnerability and religious martyrdom, with a homosexual undercurrent. Albee is addressing the same topics in The Goat, now in a way that manages to be more symbolic yet also more straightforward.

On the subject of symbolism, a lazier playwright working with the topic of innocence might have mated his character with a lamb, but Albee's goat is well-chosen. In the Hebrew Bible, for the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat was loaded up with the sins of the people and driven over a cliff; from the New Testament angle, the scapegoat presages the sacrifice of Jesus. And in the secular world, it's the scapegoat that is held responsible for other people's problems. Clearly, there's something wrong in Martin and Stevie's world that has nothing to do with bestiality. Less applicable but still interesting is the concept of the Judas goat, the one that leads others to slaughter, which reminds one of the kiss of Judas, which really does not apply here, except that most of the play's action is framed by two kisses: first, an ambiguously innocent one on the forehead, and later, a kiss of quite a different and disturbing nature.

The Rogue production, directed with sharp focus by David Morden, treats this as the harrowing drama it is, even while indulging Albee's more whimsical tendencies. (Whimsical? Albee? Well, it's a new century.) J. Andrew McGrath brings tremendous heart and even a bit of dignity to the role of Martin; we can see what this character wants and needs, even if Stevie--or, sometimes, Martin himself--cannot. Morden, by the way, usually keeps McGrath several yards away from anyone else on stage, which of course isolates Martin, but because most of the scenes involve only two characters, it also isolates every other participant in the story.

Meier's Stevie is a model of balance and modulation; here's a woman who believes herself to be victimized by Martin's transgressions, but refuses to be a passive victim. Rick Shipman makes Ross less of a cad and a hypocrite than he can seem in other productions, and Matt Bowdren gives us a finely judged account of the gay son with the unfortunately goatish name Billy, who is confused and wounded but not at all spineless.

Every element of this production is carefully thought through, from the two primitivist art objects decorating a set that is mostly bathed in earth tones, to the quasi-ancient-Greek pre-performance concert by Harlan Hokin and the Hokoi.

The Goat is not for sensitive audiences, particularly not the final scene, which makes it explicit that this is a play about not merely the loss of innocence, but its utter destruction.

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