How do we define love? This is the question at the core of Edward Albee’s searing drama The Goat, or who is Sylvia? Which is playing now through November 23, at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center.
Albee, a master of complex marital drama—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, anyone?—has written a complex, high-octane, but thoughtful examination on the perplexities of love, and its many unfathomable incarnations. It is part social commentary, part family drama, with shocking moments of revelation and outrageous humor that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and that’s just while reading it. This production of the great master’s play, is worthy and oftentimes wonderful with slick pacing, an intimate space that serves the material rather well, and a pair of wonderful performances.
The story of The Goat, or who is Sylvia? Is one that a synopsis cannot do justice to, and one that would involve far too many spoilers. So let me just say that this is a story about a family in crisis. A major crisis. The kind of crisis that seems impossible to recover from.
At the start of the show, Martin (Paul Witten) and Stevie (Ann Noble), are a picture-perfect, middle-aged, upper-class couple. She is the shopping for dress gloves type, and he is a semi-famous architect who has just turned fifty and has received a prestigious award for his work. The first scene has Martin prepping for an on-camera interview about his award that his best friend Ross (Matt Krikwood) is conducting. Stevie and Martin have a light, comical chemistry together. The kind of relaxed amusement that suggests years of a content, or even happy marriage. But for some unknown reason, Martin is a bit off. He seems distracted, weighted almost, as if his mind is elsewhere. He acknowledges as much, and he and Stevie have a bit of fun contemplating what the reason for his absent-mindedness might be. Then she goes off shopping without giving it another thought. But there is trouble in paradise. Major trouble.
Martin and Ross have a heart-to-heart in which Martin confesses as to the reason why he’s been so distracted, and it is this confession that changes the course of not only Martin’s evening, but his entire life. What follows is a series of confrontations, confessions, and catastrophic realizations that prove why Mr. Albee is one of the most celebrated voices in the theatre. The subtitle of this play Who is Sylvia? Comes from Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona, it was a song used to lament and idealize true love. This production uses this double meaning as a means of interpreting love as it may apply differently to each individual. What this play wants to say is that love is love.
This production hits so many right notes, from the wonderful set design by Robert Selander which proved as functional as it did efficient, to the impeccable direction of Ken Sawyer. It takes a well-trained eye to not only fully appreciate Albee’s world, but to delve deep into it and to not fear the awkward, hilarious, awful, painful truth of it all. And it boasts brave, nuanced, and fearless performances from Paul Witten and Ann Noble.
As Martin, Paul Witten has the daunting task of taking on a difficult role. There are aspects of Martin that could come across as absurd, even insane, but keeping him grounded, Mr. Witten never approaches either of these. There is an ambiguous nature to Martin that allows an actor to interpret as he will, and with Mr. Sawyer’s skillful direction, Mr. Witten goes for a gentle but decisive approach. As Martin, his commitment is staggering, as his refusal to surrender to his own weaknesses. There is a nobility in him and given the circumstances that we come to know about him, it is a remarkable trait to maintain.
As Stevie, Ann Noble is incredible. She commands the stage at every turn, she is fascinating, furiously funny, and deftly ferocious all while maintaining a level of heartbreak that never fully recedes. It is a tour de force, and one that must be seen.
What is especially wonderful about this strange little play, is that it embraces its own strangeness head-on, and challenges the audience to rethink their own ideas. And this production doesn’t shy away from that. Its in-your-face style is on full display. And the small theatre heightens the level of awkwardness an audience can feel watching the events of this play unfold.
There is a beauty in the tragedy of it, however, and it is a beauty that requires the pain of its participants to endure to demonstrate the limitless boundaries one is willing to cross in the name of love. Because when it comes right down to it, that’s what this awkward, hilariously painful play is really all about. Love. The lengths that we are willing to go to for love. But perhaps more importantly, it’s about the pressure we feel, socially, about what is right and wrong with love.
In the end, this production is a resounding success. A daring, brutally funny, wonderfully uncomfortable examination of love, relationships, and the constraints of both. The idea of love is scrutinized, as are the labels we place upon it. It is the nature of love itself that Albee is exploring. He’s telling us that labels, norms, and standards must not, cannot, and do not always apply. And he does so in his usual astoundingly brilliant fashion.
THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Ken Sawyer
Presented by the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center at the Los Angeles LGBT Center
DATES: September 19 — November 23
TIMES: Opens Friday 9/19 at 8pm Regular Friday & Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7pm ADMISSION: $30
TICKET INFO: Online at www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre, or call (323) 860-7300.
LOCATION: Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place (one block east of Highland, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard), in Hollywood. Free onsite parking is available.
**Production Photos by Michael Lamont.