theatre/dance
March 30, 2004

 

Love with an improper stranger
By David Ollington

The prolific, erudite and provocative American playwright Edward Albee has become nothing short of an institution, a symbol of contemporary theatre, and a major force in the literary and theatrical worlds. His plays first reached notoriety in the early ‘60s and begat the American Absurdist movement. After almost half a century of work, Albee wrote The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, which opened on Broadway in March 2002.

Mark and Elizabeth Robbins and Dan Barnett star in The Goat or Who is Sylvia? at the Unicorn Theatre thru April 4.


The Unicorn Theatre has assembled an appropriately seasoned ensemble and refreshingly engaged a Chicago director to bring to KC audiences The Goat or Who is Sylvia? The husband and wife team of Mark and Elizabeth Robbins play the leads Martin and his wife Stevie. The Robbins both list impressive local and regional acting credits and have expressed their expert craft in Kansas City for over a decade, marking themselves as theatrically literate to local audiences as Albee's work is to the field. Unicorn Artistic Director Cynthia Levin engaged Chicago director Ina Marlowe to orchestrate Albee's recent offering. Marlowe has worked closely with Albee in the past. The Goat or Who is Sylvia? is her directorial debut at the Unicorn.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? unveils like an expert stripper -- layer after layer makes a more gripping revelation. Martin, an architect, bemoans to Stevie his recent attainment of the age of 50 as he prepares for a video interview. He's losing things, forgetting things and fears the onset of old age. His friend Ross (Dan Barnett) arrives to conduct and tape the dyad, and Martin's distracted incompetence ruins the effort. Martin admits to Ross the source of his distraction -- he's having an affair. But the object of Martin's affections turns out to be of another species. Martin regularly rendezvous with a goat named Sylvia.

Ross' conscience renders him unable to contain knowledge of his friend's inter-genus affair, so he writes a letter to Stevie. Michael Andrew Smith plays Stevie and Martin's gay son Billy; Billy and Stevie confront Martin with the extreme perversion of his tryst. (The nature of Martin's infidelity makes Albee's choice to name the son "Billy" rather evocative.) Albee uses Billy's orientation to ignite painful (but oddly humorous) quarrels between man and son over whose erotic life is most perverse.

"At least what I do is with persons!" Billy retorts.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, like most of Albee's plays, raises more questions than it answers. He investigates the limits of tolerance in our world and manages to infuse wit into a dissection of the human soul. Though the bestiality theme ignites the plot's central conflict, the interaction of the father and son almost pushes the envelope further. In an electric scene between the men, Albee forces us to face the acceptable limits of parental interaction.

Albee's work brilliantly challenges the viewer, but The Goat or Who is Sylvia? doesn't reach the riddling depths of his earlier work -- the deep conundrum of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the awe-inspiring dimension of Tiny Alice (1964) or the fragile sanity of A Delicate Balance (1966).

Central to the stunning effect of the Unicorn's production, Mark and Elizabeth Robbins live up to their usual standards of excellence and believably animate Albee's words. Their characterizations remarkably contrast each other. Mark Robbins' Martin wiggles with evasion. Elizabeth Robbins' Stevie methodically descends into an outrage, demented in its maintenance of control and decorum. Stevie, with rage, proceeds to destroy their Upper East Side belongings, but Elizabeth Robbins executes the destruction with direction and deliberation, picking up large vases with simplicity and mechanically releasing them to the ground.

Martin asks her, "Are you going to do this to all of our furniture?" She replies, "Yes. I may need your help with some of it."

Mark Robbins rarely keeps his weight on both feet and chaotically dodges every interrogation, barely able to maintain eye contact. Elizabeth Robbins chisels Stevie out of cold stone; Mark Robbins' Martin resembles a puppy at an awkward age.

Dan Barnett as Ross brings a normalcy to the production, making the character a representation of the mainstream world looking in with horror on the family's skeletons. Smith as Billy is relatively believable and passionate, but he doesn't equal the Robbins' in depth. In a climactic speech to his father, Smith falls short of truly raising the stakes of the archetypal, emotional father/son clash.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? raises some macabre issues, mostly with Albee's insightful words. Marlowe's direction of the Unicorn production puts the genius of the playwright's creation in the spotlight. The directorial hand is unseen, a testament to a truly expert director. The maturity of Albee's creation and the riveting characterization of the Robbins make this production worth a viewing.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? runs through April 4 at the Unicorn Theatre. Call 816-531-7529 ext. 10. The Unicorn's next production is Blue/Orange, opening April 23 and running through May 30.

David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com or publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.

 


              
              
                 

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