Timing, even more than in most plays, is critical to the successful staging of The Goat. Edward Albee’s 2002 play opens straight-forwardly enough with Stevie, a well-heeled Upper East Side type, arranging spring posies in a vase, setting the scene for her architect husband Martin who is about to be interviewed on video. The occasion is his winning the Pritzker Prize and a major building commission, World City.
“Why can’t I remember anything?” Martin asks Stevie. He can’t even recall why he’s entered the room. The two have an obvious undying affection for one another, played out in the light, witty banter that ensues. “All the senses go,” Martin observes of the aging process. “You’re only 50,” Stevie reassures. “It’s the little slips,” he notes. “Do you think it means anything?” “What’s that smell?” she sniffs when they embrace.
The Goat Or, Who is Sylvia? is a play about words and how we use them to negotiate the difficult times. The audience pays attention to a phrase like “It’s the little slips,” knowing somehow that this couple has entered a minefield. Each sentence, each movement is measured and delivered with exactitude. Alan Dilworth directs with care and insight into Albee’s precise text. Raquel Duffy as Stevie, Derek Boyes as Martin’s journalist friend Ross, Paolo Santalucia as son Billy and Albert Schultz as Martin get mileage out of every emotion-laden moment of this play.
Martin isn’t very forthcoming when his old friend Ross (they’ve known each other since they were 10) attempts an interview to mark this “pinnacle” of Martin’s career. Putting down his video camera, Ross seeks to find out what’s occupying his friend’s mind. He guesses it’s an extramarital affair. Martin struggles with what to tell him, reminiscing about a time when the young men were entertaining hookers in a shared room and Martin couldn’t perform: “the heart rules the dick.” This evasion doesn’t sit well with Ross, who has preserved a frat-boy’s understanding of infidelity being the right of every red-blooded heterosexual male.
The play cracks open not with Martin’s admission he is head-over-heels for a goat called Sylvia (“she was looking at me with those eyes of hers”) but with Stevie’s receipt of a letter from Ross detailing how her husband (“I am mortified to tell you”) is fucking a goat. Stevie has included Billy, the 17-year-old gay son, in this revelation and he is the one who is most helplessly distraught.
Lighting, sound design, costumes and set – a tastefully furnished white space that Stevie will demolish – all work toward a very nuanced production. Details build, through conversations ranging from sarcastic to explosive, to a spectacular climax. Even little things count: like Ross’s spanking new jeans with the four-inch cuff; they’re a clue to how a consciously constructed image can mask a duplicitous character.
Dilworth’s program notes cite Albee’s subtitle: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy (the Greek term for tragedy translates as “goat song”) and words from Anne Carson on the cathartic function of classical tragedy. This production fulfills expectations of classic drama to move us as well as a contemporary need to be intellectually challenged. Martin is really asking, who am I and what is my heart telling me? Meanwhile, a raging Stevie exhibits the most animalistic behaviour of anyone on stage. More than simply cathartic, this Goat stuns us into self-examination.
The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Alan Dilworth
A Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts , Toronto, until November 18
Photo of Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz by Cylla Von Tiedemann