The zoo story

Posted on 20 Oct 2008 at 4:36pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones – Stage Critic

Edward Albee’s button-pushing bestiality fable ‘The Goat’ finally arrives in Dallas, and we have Kitchen Dog to thank for it


In a flash of progressivity not usually associated with the Puritanical Victoria Age in which she lived, 19th century British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell famously opined about homosexuals, "Does it really matter what these affectionate people do, so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses?"

You have to wonder how much a quote like that lingered in the back of Edward Albee’s mind as he was writing "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?," now celebrating its regional premiere courtesy of Kitchen Dog Theater. "How liberal is society really?" Albee seems to ask. "What if sex were taken to the streets? And what if mankind weren’t frightening the horses, but sodomizing them?" Even Mrs. Patrick Campbell would see the limits of that.

As KDT artistic director Tina Parker noted in her opening night curtain speech, "The Goat" won the Tony Award in 2002, but took more than six years for it to make its way to the boards of Dallas. Why? Could it be the subject matter? In the words of Sarah Palin, "You betcha!"

Martin (Bob Hess) is a famous architect at the top of his profession (he’s just won the Pritzker Prize). As behooves a modern urbanite, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool liberal: He embraces his gay kid Billy’s (Kevin Moore) coming out and proudly votes Democratic.

But circumstances have put him on the horns of a di-llama. Martin has been cheating on his wife Stevie (Diane Box-Worman) with Sylvia, a nanny goat he keeps corralled in an upstate love nest (you and I would call it a barn). His wife and son bleat their disapproval, making him the black sheep of their small family. They can’t understand Martin’s position at all: The heart wants what it wants. Even if it makes you smell like lanolin after a night of passion.

The premise of "The Goat" is so provocative, so calculated to offend vast swaths of contemporary society (like Sartre’s "No Exit," there’s no intermission, owing to the reasonable belief that few patrons would voluntarily return for more abuse), that in some ways, actually seeing it is an act of social rebellion. It’s as if you need to prove how tolerant you are by allowing Albee to assault the limits of tolerance. Over. And over.
And over again.

Or maybe you’re just expecting a love scene. (There isn’t one, but there’s something much worse.)

Whatever your reason, you should see it, if only to say you did. And to be entertained, in a darkly sick way, for 90 uncomfortable minutes.

As with the majority of Albee’s work, especially the later stuff which spins recklessly into the realm of theater of the absurd, "The Goat" is obsessed with language and how we use it. There’s Albee’s famous employing of recitative, constantly repeating the same or similar passages as if to create a tolerance for the words. If you hear someone say "I’m in love with a wonderful goat!" often enough, maybe that’s a pill that becomes easier to swallow.

And kind of, it does. Martin is the protagonist, and as good a person as Stevie seems, you strive to empathize with his feelings. Hess’ performance goes a long way toward making that work. Hess specializes in glad-handing sophisticates who know how to work a cocktail party — which is definitely the Martin most people see. But he toggles breathtakingly quickly between chipper and solemn, his face instantly registering defeat.

It’s a contest between him and Box-Worman for who gets the most sympathy. Box-Worman, wound tighter than a rubber-band in a toy airplane, expresses her rage, which manifests itself in some surprisingly physical ways, in a relatable and never shrill fashion.

Weaker among the cast are Moore, too old to convincingly play a teenager, and Barry Nash, who is completely off with the show’s rhythms (he seems to be performing in an entirely different play).

Albee packs a tremendous amount of subtle comedy into the play as pontoons keeping the grim, Gothic weirdness of it all afloat. The TV show for which Martin is being interviewed is insultingly called "People Who Matter" — as if one’s appearance on it legitimizes one’s existence. But Martin, like everyone, does matter, if only to his family. And watching him unravel, gripped by the uncontrollable urges that accompany middle age (he’s becoming forgetful, and here’s a suggestion he’s genuinely in he midst of a slo-mo nervous breakdown) make him a tragic figure in the classical sense.

Indeed, "The Goat" bears much more in common with "Oedipus Rex" than "American Pie" or even Jerry Springer: Its structure is Sophoclean, operatic. We’re not really meant to understand it all — everything unfolds in the playground of the gods, and we mortals are mere puzzled observers.

Art needs to challenge us on occasion. There’s nothing truly angry or politically motivated about "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" — no moment when you feel Albee has stepped up on his soapbox to hector us about the hypocrisy of New York intellectualism and the bourgeois morality. I’m not even sure you could say what he thinks about such matters, really. We’ll never truly know the nature of the beast … even if that beast has a name like Sylvia.

The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through Dec. 13. Select Wednesdays, Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., select Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $15–$25. 214-953-1055.

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