Thursday, March 10, 2005
Since the days of Chaucer, great writers have understood that men having sex with farm animals is really bleating funny, even though in reality, fornication with a goat is a taboo that generally induces not laughter, but outrage and vomiting.
Edward Albee’s brutal, absurd and astonishing play The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? mounts the concept of the forbidden and then rudely and roughly probes it from behind. Alternately funny and deeply disturbing, The Goat is classic Albee—nasty, emotionally violent and tremendously insightful. Like a trickster with a magnetic stone, it spins our moral compasses wildly, and then dares us with a jeer and a cackle to try to navigate our way to some simple answer.
Martin (Richard Boynton), a hugely successful architect who has just turned 50, leads an ostensibly ideal life with his loving wife Stevie (Michele Savage) and gay teenage son (Tim Snyder). But when he confides to his best friend, Ross (Jeffrey Thompson) that he is having a sexual affair with a goat, his world is immediately and irreparably torn apart.
It’s a simple premise hanging like a white egg in a messy, dripping, bloody web of human flesh and emotion. At the end of the first scene, when Ross finally accepts the fact that Martin is not kidding, the shift from dark parlor comedy to violin-screech, postmodern Greek tragedy is breathtaking.
The second scene opens with Martin’s gay son screaming, “Goatfucker!” at his father while his wife moans, “You smell of goat! You smell of shit!” Martin’s transformation from respected father and professional to perverse and tainted ghoul is immediate and total. When it comes to having sex with goats, there is no in-between—he has passed from this world into another. Yet he still attempts to make Stevie understand that this affair, his first in 22 years of marriage, was born of true love. This, of course, only drives his wife to greater heights of madness.
Yet therein lie the play’s toughest questions. If Martin’s love for the goat is true, as Albee would have us believe, then isn’t this an issue of liberty? It’s a question that bizarrely inspires a dozen more. Why do we love whom we love? Why do we set boundaries on love? Why must we divorce our sexual selves from our social selves? Why does it embarrass us that all God’s creatures are also sexual creatures? And why must the innocent always be sacrificed?
Yet (as Freud points out) anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example. In other words, we implicitly ask, why should Martin be allowed to experience the forbidden when we cannot? By acting on his deepest desires, he has become truly contagious in the sense that every example encourages imitation, and for that reason society (and Martin’s loved ones) must shun and shame and persecute him.
What Martin has done is wrong, of course, but Albee still manages to portray him as an innocent. There are shades of heroism in Martin’s character, even saint-like martyrdom. The play’s surprising strength comes from these shades and the moral quagmire they inspire. This is a deeply conflicting play and in that sense, a masterpiece—possibly even Albee’s finest.
As Martin, Richard Boynton starts out distracted, bemused and frightened and winds up angry, defiant and tragic. His development over the course of the play is riddled with sheepish grins and the uneasy squirm of an unrepentant pervert. It is a subtle performance that leaves the audience truly believing he is capable of mounting a goat from behind. As Ross, Martin’s best friend, Jeffrey Thompson looks and acts as if he has stepped out of an infomercial for some hair product. He is grating and blunt and incapable of any subtle reflection upon his best friend’s plight—a fact that makes Martin all the more sympathetic.
As the teenage son, Tim Snyder is perfectly cast. A young misfit already familiar with how cruel and judgmental society can be when it comes to sex, Snyder’s performance is perhaps the most important of the play as it ranges from abject disgust to something resembling understanding and love. As Martin’s anguished wife, Michele Savage’s Medea-like performance is punctuated by broken furniture and quiet, desperate moments of murderous anger.
But there are flat moments in the performances, especially in the first scene, that threaten to derail the production before it hits its high energy stride in the second scene. Also, Martin’s Alzheimer’s-like affliction in the first scene is distracting and the only aspect of Albee’s script that feels forced. It’s possible Martin’s memory problem is some kind of defense mechanism, some last ditch attempt to erase the whole ugly situation from reality, but when the affliction all but disappears in the subsequent scenes, we’re left wondering what purpose it served other than producing some nice Abbot and Costello moments between Martin and Ross.
Nonetheless, The Goat’s grim postmodern pathology and endless bestiality jokes make for great theater and unsettling reflection.