One thing’s for certain– California Repertory Theatre’s latest production is not for kids. The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? deals with infidelity and adultery with (I kid you not)… a goat. The production was originally scheduled to open on Valentine’s Day (How romantic!), but it seemed the gods thought that was in bad taste, so facility issues postponed the play until the following weekend.
My friend Will and I boarded the majestic Queen Mary’s Royal Theatre for the first Saturday night performance. Will had seen the original play on Broadway, so I was looking forward to discussing it afterward for his perspective. His first observation: “Well… there’s more legroom on Broadway!” Yes… it’s a pity. The Art-Deco ambience of the boat is wonderful, but for our six-foot frames, the Royal Theatre’s aisle depth is patently plebeian. Another inch or two is all it would have taken to make the experience much more pleasurable (Insert your own Michael Scott catchprase here).
Just before the lights dimmed, who should walk down the aisle and sit a few seats away from us? Why, it was SNL veteran Molly Shannon! Yes, “Mary Katherine Gallagher” in all her glory! As the play was a “black comedy,” I was curious how amusing she would find the play. Turns out she’s one tough cookie. Lines that sent the audience into hysterics did not even crack a smile on Molly. I imagine after working with some of the nation’s best comic writers and performers for a decade, the bar is set pretty high. I did see her raucously laugh on one occasion, and Will claims he counted three times… so let’s compromise and say she laughed at least twice.
At the end of the play I waited near the exit, wanting to take a selfie with her but then chickened out. What would I ask her to do… smell her fingers? I decided she might not want to do that and scurried off to explore the frightening bowels of the ship… which is a story for another time.
The play itself tells the story of Martin, (played by Brian Mulligan) a celebrated architect at the zenith of his career. He has recently received a major architectural award and has been selected to design an immensely expensive housing development. He is even to be interviewed for a TV special by his old friend, Ross (played by Craig Anton). Here is where he drops a bombshell: he admits to his friend that he is having an affair, and after some prodding by Ross, he shows him a picture of his paramore– a goat he has named Sylvia.
Ross is also old friends with Martin’s wife, Stevie. He informs her of the “affair” by letter, and here’s where the play really gets started. Once Stevie (played by Roma Maffia) learns of Martin’s beastiality, she lets loose an occasionally violent storm of rage, sorrow, and sarcasm; Maffia seems to be channeling Liz Taylor’s epic performance in the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The play is written by the legendary Edward Albee, who has three Pulitzers to his name. (Amazingly, his most famous work– Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– was passed over for this prize.) Although Albee subtitled the play “Notes toward a definition of tragedy,” it is usually referred to as a “black comedy” or “tragicomedy.” There are clearly some very comic elements within it, and at many times the audience erupted with laughter. Mixing tragedy and comedy can oftentimes lead to a delicious elixir, but the process must be done carefully as it carries some risk. If done well, comedy can provide a much needed relief from the heaviness of pure tragedy, but if it’s done wrong, the flavors can clash.
Although many in the audience did laugh, I couldn’t help but feel like the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy didn’t work well, especially at first. (I’m not normally opposed to this, as some of my favorite plays and films are tragicomedies.) Although both Maffia and Mulligan are able actors, their relationship seemed strained and unbelievable in the early stages of the play. When Martin’s sordid secret is let out, it still takes a few rough minutes before the characters’ actions seemed natural or believable. Perhaps the most awkward moment is when Martin and his gay son, (played by Tyler Bremer), come to blows during an argument; their brief wrestle looked painfully contrived.
However, the play really hit its stride in the interaction between Martin and Stevie in the second half. I frequently found myself thinking of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s tiffs.
So was this the fault of Albee’s script, James Martin’s direction, or the actors’ performances? At least some blame must be placed on Albee; a few of the lines would have been hard to deliver convincingly. I asked Will about his opinion of the original Broadway performance he had seen years ago (with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl as the leads). He conceded it had worked better, but that he had some misgivings about the script as well. Cal Rep’s lead performers (Maffia and Mulligan) are definitely professional caliber and perform especially well in the second half. But sometimes good ingredients, for whatever reason, just don’t always mix well.
Although there are some rough edges (which may well be worked out), the play is worth seeing and definitely thought-provoking. In a modern, liberal and tolerant society, where do we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior? The issues of infidelity, adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, atonement and forgiveness are all brought up at least once (best to leave the kids at home for this one). The play is a great starting point for a discussion that can be continued in the Queen Mary’s lovely Observation Bar.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? will play at the Royal Theatre located aboard the Queen Mary through March 8. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturday at 8pm; matinee performances are Saturdays at 2pm. Tickets are $25 general admission, $20 for students, military and seniors (55+). Parking is $6 for students or those dining aboard the ship. (Be sure to get your ticket validated!) For tickets and more information, call (562) 985-5526 or visit calrep.org .