Whew! Be careful what you wish for. If you have seen as many bland South Florida shows as I have, you may start hoping to find something really provocative, something so mind-boggling that you won't forget it ten minutes after you leave the theater. If that is your quest, prepare to be rocked by GableStage's sizzling production of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, a play that will certainly take the prize as the most daring, literate script of the South Florida theater season and another out-of-the-ballpark smash from director Joe Adler. This wild, challenging project is the latest from master provocateur Edward Albee, who is as risk-addicted these days as he was when he first burst onto the theatrical landscape 45 years ago with Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He dares to be funny and frightening at once; his plays morph genres in mid-narrative; and he insists that his audiences do what few are used to doing in this overhyped, spin-doctored, TV-addicted culture: make up their own minds about what they are experiencing.
In The Goat, Albee exploits a typical dramatic situation -- midlife crisis and marital infidelity -- and sends it cartwheeling into the twilight zone. The story centers on a literate liberal architect, Martin, who is approaching 50, having achieved all the trappings of success. His wife, Stevie, is sleek, beautiful, and very smart, and their long marriage is a happy one. Martin has a good relationship with his teenage son, money, career acknowledgement -- the whole shot. OK, the son is gay, but this is the modern day, and this family is completely comfortable with sexuality. Or is it? Martin, for one, is plagued by his recent, sudden, extramarital affair, the first he's ever experienced. He confides in his long-time pal, Ross, who isn't too concerned that Martin has something going on the side. But then Martin is compelled to confide to Ross that his new love, Sylvia, is a goat, a revelation that sets in motion an inexorable descent toward doom.
You can take this story any way you want or several ways at once. On a serious literal level, it's a tale about bestiality and self-destructive compulsion. On another level, it's a quest for truth no matter the consequences. On yet another, it's a deliciously ludicrous send-up. Albee dances a tarantella between seriousness and wry dry comedy and manages yet another context, manipulating (as he did with The Play About the Baby) this play's theatricality. The Goat starts out as a brittle, witty, living-room comedy. Though its central subject is deliberately shocking, this is a very droll play, filled with comedic riffs, jokes, and double-entendres: Albee's characters are as brainy as he is and compliment one another on their bons mots.
But as the story progresses, the mood turns darker and darker still, and what began as a drawing-room farce turns into Euripedes. This is not hyperbole. Albee clearly references Greek tragedy throughout The Goat, from the sacrificial, sexual, and demonic resonances of the title on through dozens of allusions, even in the structure of the dialogue in the final scenes that warp from naturalism to highly artificial poetic rhetoric. In the process, the characters shed their informal modernity and take on tragic elements. The well-born philanderer Martin turns into a kind of Oedipus, a logical man seeking truth through his erotic transgression. His witty wife turns into a kind of Medea, wild and vengeful. Ross, the upright friend turned accuser, is a modern Creon, conventional and relentless. This brilliant theatrical device drives home The Goat's key point: that modern rationality, the whole pretense of progress and ordered civility, is a flimsy construct. Human beings are still prey to primal unexplainable urges -- lust, incest, violence, revenge.
Adler and his top-flight production team clearly emphasize this central theme. Composer Michael J. Hoffman's score features pan pipes and a lyre. Rich Simone's stunning set, a massive stone wall of square blocks, looks at first like a high-tech living room, with both primitive and primitive-looking modern art tucked away in recessed niches.
But as the story turns darker, the designer furniture gets upended and the artwork smashed -- what was a modernist room looks more and more like an ancient Greek theater, where primordial passion, not postmodern angst, reigns. Daniela Schwimmer's nuanced costumes echo Albee's spooky design. Schwimmer has dressed modern Martin in the preppie uniform of blazer, tasseled loafers, and school tie but surrounds him with Stevie in leather (another Medea touch) and Ross' priestly black and gray.
Bob Rogerson is spectacular as Martin, easily the best work this veteran actor has delivered in recent memory. The role calls for complete emotional commitment to its absurd premise, considerable verbal gifts to handle several deeply poetic monologues (an interesting new romantic turn for Albee), and an extremely sophisticated comedic sense. Rogerson, whose sense of comedic timing was on superb display in Comic Potential last season, acquits himself splendidly in all three departments. As Stevie, Laura Turnbull delivers a smart portrait of a woman faced with the unthinkable. But Turnbull's realistic acting, which served her well in GableStage's recent success Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, doesn't completely fulfill the play's requirements when Albee veers toward classic rhetoric and supersized emotions in the final scenes. Steve Neal brings the right dose of conventional outrage to Martin's friend Ross but doesn't explore all the potential motivations -- like envy and class resentment -- that might complicate his betrayal of Martin's trust. Ryan Capiro shows considerable stage presence in the emotionally demanding role of Martin's kid, Billy (more of Albee's goat jokes and an intentional identification with the title character), who harbors yet another secret desire of his own.
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