Home on the Mange

Who is Silvia? What is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admired be.

Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being help'd, inhabits there.

-- William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

Edward Albee, famed playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner, recipient of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal in Drama, has written a play, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, about a man in love with a goat. Not a metaphorical goat, but a real goat called Sylvia, with -- or on -- whom he consummates his passion. And he believes that Sylvia reciprocates his love.

This man is Martin, a renowned architect who -- just as he turns fifty -- has won both the Pritzker Architecture Prize and a multi-billion-dollar commission to build a model city, the dream city of the future. His home life is exemplary. He is happily married to the charming Stevie, and the two of them are dealing in an enlightened way with the recently revealed homosexuality of their seventeen-year-old son. But then Martin tells Ross, an old friend who's interviewing him for a cable talk show, about his love for Sylvia. Pretty soon Stevie has found out, and -- in one of the most extraordinary scenes in modern dramaturgy -- she careens from rage to helpless laughter, laughter to anguish, anguish to bitterness and all the way back to rage, breaking vases and furniture as she goes.

And then the couple's son, Billy (yes, really!), is in on the act, as everyone upbraids Martin together while he insists -- sad, bewildered, stubborn -- that his love for Sylvia is real, and not only real but innocent, and not only innocent but beautiful.

How does Albee mean us to take all this? His play explores, or at least refers to, all the obvious angles: bestiality as an emotional sickness to be explored within the confines of a support group; bestiality as something dark and primal that threatens the foundations of civilization; bestiality as an act of rape against an innocent animal; bestiality as a metaphor for all that's forbidden in human sexuality, including incest and homosexuality; bestiality as just one expression of humankind's irrepressible pansexuality (the play refers to the sensual response of parents to their children, the sexual ecstasy the saints found in their torments). Albee is clearly exploring boundaries: When is sex genuinely immoral? What sexual behavior is clearly beyond the pale?

The support group Martin finds online includes a farm boy, a woman unable to face sex with men because of childhood rapes by both her father and her brother, and a man who uses a goose. But what separates Martin from the other participants is the fact that he feels no regret for his actions. Somehow, within the confines of his civilized life -- the professional success, the curving sculptures that adorn his living room, his so-sympatico wife -- this ancient, atavistic urge has arisen, an urge well-known to the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, who never really bought the separation of man and animal anyway (think Pan, think the Minotaur, think Zeus, rapist and shape-changer).

Every pet owner on earth has at one time or another gazed into an animal's eyes and wondered just who or what is behind them, and how that strange yet so familiar being perceives the universe. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote eloquently of this in The Hidden Life of Dogs, and children's authors from Hugh Lofting to Felix Salten have created Eden-like worlds in which the boundaries dissolve between animals and human children. Such universal feelings represent part of the reason that Martin sees his bond with Sylvia as "connection...communication...epiphany."

But it's important to remember that Martin does more than gaze into Sylvia's beautiful eyes. He shtups her. And he comes home smelling of goat.

Watching Albee's play, it's hard to decide if what you're seeing is intellectually and aesthetically daring or plain just nuts. Often the dialogue -- particularly during the dramatic ending -- swings wildly between hilarity and sorrow. But I think, ultimately, this play comes down on the side of art, and it functions exactly the way art is supposed to function -- jolting you out of your customary way of seeing things.

Under the direction of Nagle Jackson, Curious Theatre Company has assembled a strong production, brought to coruscating life by Mare Trevathan's brilliantly controlled hysteria as Stevie. Robert Reid is an empathetic and diffident Martin, but he plays the character as a bit of a shlub and doesn't convince as a world-class architect (his cheap-looking, ill-fitting costume doesn't help much either). Brian Watkins gives us a vulnerable young Billy. John Arp is tough, bluff, corrupt and simply terrific as Ross. In all, a vivid, iconoclastic evening of theater.