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article imageReview: Albee shocker somehow seems tamer in new Soulpepper staging Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 16, 2017 in Entertainment
Toronto - The late Edward Albee never stopped shocking audiences, even in his seventies. His Tony-winning 2002 play “The Goat or, Who Is Silvia?”, which takes on bestiality, makes his classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seem family-friendly.
So why does the current Soulpepper production of The Goat, which opened last week and runs until this Saturday, seem low-key and restrained, even muted at times? I don’t think it’s the performances, which are mostly good; Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz is likeable and troubled as Martin, a renowned architect with a dirty secret, and Raquel Duffy matches him as his faithful wife, Stevie; both have a strong sense of Albee’s vicious wit and absurdist worldview.
Perhaps it’s a lack of spontaneity in Alan Dilworth’s direction. Even in the explosive scene when Stevie trashes the family’s living room in reaction to Martin’s attempts to explain his recent behaviour, Duffy’s overturning of furniture sometimes feels strangely noncommittal, rather than violent. “There aren’t many rules for where we are right now,” Martin says at one point, yet Dilworth’s handling of Albee’s outrageous, confrontational material often feels as if he’s just following the rules, going by rote.
Martin seems to be at the top of his world at the beginning of Albee’s one-act play – he has just won the Pritzker Prize, the architecture world’s highest honour, and been hired to design a new city in the American Midwest. His twenty-two-year marriage to Stevie appears strong, and both are accepting of their openly gay teenage son, Billy (Paolo Santalucia). But Martin seems unusually forgetful and distracted, especially during a TV interview by his closest friend, Ross (Derek Boyes), who prods him into revealing his secret: he is having a love affair with Silvia, a goat he “met” while shopping for a country home for his family.
Of course, everybody assumes Martin is joking at first – “I’ve got to stop by the feed store,” Stevie quips before she goes out – but Stevie’s levity turns into bitter, biting sarcasm after she realizes that her husband really has crossed the line in unimaginable ways. “I give milk only on special occasions,” she says, noting the disadvantages of loving another human being. For Billy, the news and the family chaos it triggers is devastating, tearing him between his instinctive, unconditional love for his father and his urge to protect his mother.
Like many Albee works, The Goat is a daring challenge to our sense of morality, especially for liberals who see themselves as tolerant and open-minded. Is Martin’s sexual attraction to Sylvia a sickness, or an orientation that should be accepted? Is it even possible to have a consensual love relationship with an animal?
Certain aspects of Albee’s dark comedy are particularly timely in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement – particularly Ross’ apt observation that the press would instantly destroy Martin’s life if his bestial tendencies became public; these days, just one Tweet can end a career. Another unexpected side theme is the normalization of adultery in bourgeois circles: Martin tells Ross how he once “felt like a misfit” while watching all his friends have affairs while he stayed faithful to Stevie. Ironically, conforming in a grotesquely extreme way has turned him into a permanent misfit.
Again, Schultz and Duffy give fine performances that cover a full spectrum of emotional reaction, from levity and denial to breaking down in grief and howling outrage. But the real surprise here is the young Santalucia, who’s strong and authoritative as the couple’s sensitive yet clear-minded son. Santalucia particularly shines in a later scene in which Billy and Martin confront each other, a moment that stays emotionally true even as it veers into further unexpected weirdness.
Only Boyes is a little disappointing, playing Ross as a bit of a stiff. While Ross is clearly meant to represent conformist, middle-class moral values, you feel no real chemistry between Boyes and Schultz, despite the former’s repeated assertion that he’s Martin’s “best friend”; as a result, Ross’ revelation of Martin’s secret to Stevie feels less like a betrayal than a tattletale.
Despite its moments of shock and edge – including the graphic final moments, which elicited a few gasps from last night’s audience – Dilworth’s staging of The Goat still feels less disturbing and outrageous than you would expect from a play that includes repeated, non-gratuitous uses of the word “goatf---er”. It might be a shortage of energy, or maybe an unwillingness to exploit the subject matter to its potential.
But it’s worthwhile as a tribute to Albee’s near-unmatched powers of theatrical confrontation, on the heels of the playwright’s death last year. From The Zoo Story and Virginia Woolf to A Delicate Balance (which Soulpepper is also staging later this season) and more, Albee remained a modern master of making audiences see unpleasant truths and challenging American social values for decades. It’s a mercy that he makes us laugh so much too.
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? Notes toward a Definition of Tragedy runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Saturday.
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