Friday, August 28, 2009

Getting Albee's Goat

This is the second time in three years that Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? has been trotted out to shock the locals; the play first kicked up its heels at the Lyric Stage, in a production that won actress Paula Plum an IRNE, and has just closed a run at Gloucester Stage, which has been enjoying a generally strong summer season. So why has Albee's ode to livestock now been re-purposed as summer stock? Perhaps because, to tell true, the envelope-pushing premise of Albee's nastily funny near-masterpiece still scandalizes: his hero, Pritzker prize-winning architect Martin, ensconced in a glorious haute-bourgeois lifestyle in a postmodernly be-columned home, with a beautiful, accomplished wife and a trendily gay son in tow, has fallen in love with Sylvia, the eponymous barnyard beauty, and has descended into besotted bestiality.

Which is, of course, both utterly funny and utterly disgusting - i.e., a classic Albee trope - and the author plays both sides of this tennis match of violated social norms expertly; thus the summer crowd up at Gloucester found itself laughing and gasping in about equal measure. And there's a weirdly disturbing political edge to the work as well: as this gay playwright needlingly reminds us, it wasn't so long ago that gay love was as beyond the pale as goat love, and he makes wicked hay out of the fact that Martin's wife could extravagantly embrace her ass-fucking son while extravagantly rejecting her goat-fucking hubby.

But then again, Albee's not really out to make a case for "zoos" (as I believe they call themselves - don't ask me how I know that). Instead, he's digging around in our current culture of tolerance for something, anything, that might bring down into the modern drama something like the fury of Greek tragedy (indeed, Albee tosses in a ref to the Furies themselves, and designer Eric Levenson has cleverly given us a set that's a kind of new age Greek temple, with a family photo on its altar). For after all, Oedipus was the original motherfucker, and other Greek heroes and heroines were prone to such indiscretions as dismembering their own children - ancient tragedy all but depended on taboo. With that principle in mind, Albee wants to take us to the brink of real extremity, and he understands that in doing so, his tragedy must vacillate on the edge of farce.

And the current Gloucester Stage production often trembles on this thrilling edge, at least when actress Anne Gottlieb (above, with Robert Pemberton as Martin) is melting down before our eyes as wronged wife Stevie, who gets one of the best arias of outrage in the Albee canon. I wondered if Gottlieb (whom I myself have worked with before, and was impressed by) could make me forget Plum, but to tell true, she makes the role utterly her own; she manages to make Stevie more vulnerable, tortured, and vengeful than I remembered, even while hanging onto the precise farcical mechanics which power her speeches, and make them horrifying hilarious (Stevie basically smashes everything in the house over the course of her big scene).

Co-star Robert Pemberton keeps up with Gottlieb here and elsewhere, but on his own he seems much less confident in his portrayal of Martin, and director Eric C. Engel doesn't seem to understand the tone of the opening scenes, in which Martin's dark secret tugs at his subconscious mercilessly (he finally spills the beans to his best buddy, an adequate but not quite forceful enough Dennis Trainor, Jr.). The last man in the cast doesn't fare too well, either - Jesse Rudoy seems determined not to play toward gay cliché as the couple's bewildered son, but hasn't quite developed a credible alternative for the role, either.

But all this is forgotten in the last, wrenching scene, in which Stevie returns to her ruined hearth and home, having made good on her promise of revenge - and poor Sylvia makes her only on-stage appearance. Fortunately, at this point Pemberton threw himself utterly into Martin's emotional death throes, and Gottlieb was more chillingly believable than ever. And somewhere, the Furies were smiling.

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