The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?

Edward Albee has always pushed the envelope. Take Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The trustees of Columbia University, who oversee the Pulitzer Prize, vetoed this play from receiving the award for drama in 1962 because they objected to its "profanity." But seeing the play for a second time six and a half years ago, it seemed tame, a finely-crafted salon piece explicating familial dysfunction.

What happened in the interim? Was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? profane in 1962, and not in 1998? Perhaps it could be argued that by community standards this was so, but this is certainly not true by Albee's standards. To the playwright, profanity is a slippery notion.

Photo of Edward Albee and friend
Edward Albee and friend
Photo: Michael Conti
In his most current work, The Goat Or, Who is Sylvia?, now running at Curious Theatre Company, he declares that society's definition of profanity is entirely relative: if you're caught, it's profane; if not, then it's not—it all depends on what you can get away with. As an anonymous historian once said, "to the victors belong the spoils," including, it must be said, the rewriting of history. Or, as Will Rogers put it, "History ain't what it is. It's what some writer wanted it to be."

We ask, then, what is being written today by those who have directed and funded the corporate "hostile take-over" of the U.S.A.? How do the brothers of the Skull and Bones Society, the standard bearers of the "New World Order" (as G.H.W. Bush called it), characterize profanity in their newest banana republic? The answers are sickening:

Patriotic/Sacred Liberal/Profane
The murder of Iraqis Gay Marriage
Torture (U.S. abrogation of the Geneva Convention, withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the World Court, and the consequent policy of abuse in the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) Terrorism (anyone resisting U.S. imperialism, especially those belonging to organizations formerly trained by the CIA and now serving as convenient targets for the junta's permanent war)
George W. Bush's pathetic military record and Karl Rove's clever trap set for CBS News John Kerry's exemplary military record and anyone who points out that even if CBS' sources were faulty, the facts show Bush was AWOL
George W. Bush's insider trading at Harken Oil Martha Stewart's insider trading and anyone else caught at this whose father wasn't President at the time
Wall Street and Big Pharma profits to be gained by privatizing Social Security and protecting U.S. drug market from free trade The facts which point to the long-term health of Social Security and the need to shore up Medicare
Loyalty Honesty
Unauditable voting machines, purging of minority voters, and exportation of these methods from Florida to the rest of the United States, Venezuela, Belgium, etc. Charges of vote fraud, disenfranchisement, and the obstruction of polling places in minority precincts
Corporate-controlled mass media Independent political analysis ("Bloggers" and web-based think tanks)
Corporate rights Individual rights
Armament manufacturer's profits Third World sovereignty
Energy, mineral, and timber industry profits Kyoto Treaty, sustainable development, and environmental health
George W. Bush continuing to read about goats to children at the Booker Elementary School on 9-11-2001, while his Secret Service detail was in full communication with Cheney's Secret Service agents in the PEOC (Presidential Emergency Operations Center) Dick Cheney in complete control and command of the war games and terror drills he scheduled on 9-11-2001 that placed false blips on the FAA radar and sent most Air Force jets north to Canada to fight a simulated Russian air attack, making it impossible to stop the very attacks he was emulating and had been repeatedly warned were about to occur
Supporting the endless war on terror Suggesting that 9-11 was a premise devised to steal the world's last remaining hydrocarbons and temporarily stave off the Peak Oil crisis

In other words, the fascists and their pseudo-religious supporters have fulfilled Orwell's prophetic vision of 1984: Black is White; War is Peace; Love is Hate. For anyone who doubts the parallels, click here to view a link to excerpts from that novel.

Understandably, this state of affairs is too much for Albee (or anyone else who bothers to do the research). And thankfully so. His response is the outrageous The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia? As my insightful companion for the evening noted within minutes of the curtain call, "Albee is the only one who could have written this play."

One could also make the case that Curious Theatre Company is the perfect group to stage the regional premiere. Under the artistic direction of Chip Walton, Curious has, in a remarkably short period of time, carved out a unique and important place for itself in Denver.

Unlike the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), whose political and cultural vocabulary is limited by the hands that feed it, Curious has no such restrictions; and unlike the edgy black box companies that sometimes shock for shock's sake, Curious' social criticism is consistently sharp and to the point. Let's not forget that Walton's first play in Denver (1996), before Curious was a gleam in his eye, was Edward Bond's Saved (banned in London in 1965), followed in 1997 by his award-winning production of Angels in America for Hunger Artists. Then, shortly after the company's 1998 debut, Walton put Curious on the map with Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive.

After a few rocky, commercially unsuccessful productions and some attendant growing pains that were assuaged by its highly-successful production of Proof in 2003, Curious is now unquestionably the hottest company in Denver, with ever-expanding programs for new play development and acquisitions, all oiled by savvy marketing.

In addition to attracting Vogel to it's board, Curious has, in the past few years, also provided a comfortable "off-Broadway" venue for DCTC principals John Hutton ("An Almost Holy Picture") and Jamie Horton ("Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted"), and DCTC regular Elizabeth Rainer ("Closer," "The Mineola Twins," and "Bright Ideas"). Enough can't be said about how this developing relationship among Denver's equity venues, in addition to DCTC's incrementally expanding employment of local talent, has broadened and deepened the theatrical community.

Given this new cooperative climate, it was a perfectly natural progression for Walton to enlist touted DCTC director and playwright Nagle Jackson to helm the regional premiere of Albee's latest controversial masterpiece, adding to the overall excitement that quickly gathered around the project.

In retrospect, it would be easy to say that it was clear, from the moment one entered the comfortable confines of the Acoma Center, that this production was going to be something out of the ordinary, but, indeed, in this case such a claim is easy to make. Unlike most opening nights for Curious productions, where long-time supporters, board members, and members of the local theatre community mingle in the lobby until a few minutes before the curtain, on this evening most people were in their seats with twenty minutes to spare.

And there was plenty to talk about while waiting for the curtain. Bill Curley's imposing scenic design, which filled the broad stage from end-to-end with an elegant, post-modern living room worthy of an architect who has just been awarded the Pritzker Prize, certainly set an impressive tone for what was to follow.

Much had already been written about Albee's subject matter, the unnatural relationship between an esteemed architect and a goat, and this is certainly not a play for those looking for an uplifting message, but for those with open minds and strong stomachs it bears an important message.

Photo of Mare Trevathan as Stevie and Robert Reid as Martin
Mare Trevathan as Stevie
and Robert Reid as Martin
Photo: Todd Webster
By far the toughest role in the story is that of Martin who, at 50, is the youngest person ever to be awarded architecture's highest honor, and yet who simultaneously is involved (by society's standards) in unthinkably grotesque behavior. Here, Robert Reid maintains a delicate balance (pun intended) between the sophisticated nonchalance of a worldly artist and the heartfelt sincerity of someone whom others see an utterly depraved, yet clueless, degenerate. Reid meets the challenge of making this far-fetched dichotomy credible, as much as it is possible, by resonating wholeheartedly with Martin's perspective and his self-described "extraordinary" experience.

Photo of Robert Reid as Martin and Mare Trevathan as Stevie
Robert Reid as Martin and
Mare Trevathan as Stevie
Photo: Todd Webster
As Martin's wife, Stevie, Mare Trevathan is possessed of the same acculturated sensitivity as her counterpart, yet, thankfully, has restricted her idealistic romantic notions to her own species. When Martin's secret hits the fan, Trevathan skillfully manages Stevie's growing anger, repeatedly bringing herself to the emotional edge and then backing off, relentlessly blocking Martin's ceaseless rationalizations, until, no longer able to contain herself, she methodically begins to destroy everything in her path. Trevathan's classic features and indeterminate age work well with Reid's well-preserved, prematurely gray presence, though their lukewarm chemistry somewhat dilutes the intensity of their conflict.

Photo of Robert Reid as Martin and John Arp as Ross
Robert Reid as Martin
and John Arp as Ross
Photo: Todd Webster
Ross, Martin and Stevie's best friend and a professional television journalist as well, acts as a vehicle for the hypocritical societal values expounded by our mass media, jousting with Martin's relativistic perspective while hiding behind the pseudo-objectivity of American journalism wholly compromised by corporate values. Finally getting an opportunity to use his magnificent "FM voice" to play a broadcaster, John Arp is riveting, summoning an impressive blend of power, erudition, and wit.

Photo of Mare Trevathan as Stevie and Brian Watkins as Billy
Mare Trevathan as Stevie
and Brian Watkins as Billy
Photo: Todd Webster
In an auspicious debut after having compiled a slew of acting honors (including a stint as a guest artist at the Kennedy Center in D.C.) before graduating from the University of Northern Colorado, Brian Watkins plays Billy, Martin and Stevie's gay son. As Albee's stand-in (including his probable identity as the baby [a constant reference in all of the playwright's works] in this play), Watkins deftly mixes the emotional flavors of young adulthood and adolescence, providing Albee's definitive stamp on the proceedings with the final words of the evening, "Dad? Mommy?"

Albee is the only playwright who could have done this; if anyone else had written this, it would not have been produced. This is not to say that it would have been dismissed for its "shock value," because that is certainly not the playwright's overarching intent. The shocking subject matter of the play is only a premise for stimulating the public to ask itself questions about the profane in our everyday lives: that which we see or label as such, and that which we ignore and mislabel; that to which we have become inured, that to which we have some special sensitivity, and that to which we have been programmed to respond.

The Curious Theatre Company's regional premiere of Edward Albee's The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia? runs through February 26th. 303.623.0524.

Bob Bows


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